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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 25, 2020 Arielle Silver-Willner

“We’re All Nervous About What’s Coming”—A Michigan Nurse on the Covid Crisis

Melissa Boals is a nurse at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, Michigan. She serves on the board of the Michigan Nurses Association, which represents approximately 13,000 nurses, and her hospital recently won its fight for unionization in 2017. In early May, she spoke to Arielle Silver-Willner about her experiences during the Covid crisis, as well as Jewish identity in the predominantly non-Jewish Traverse City.

Arielle Silver-Willner: I’d like to begin by thanking you for your hard work, bravery, and the sacrifices you’ve had to make during the last few months (I heard that you had to be separated from your daughter for safety reasons and that today is the first time you are able to see her again). All of this could not have been easyhow are you?  

Melissa Boals: I’m happy right now. When I picked her up I teared up. I know that I only have so many days with her and then we’ll see what happens because we’re having a lot of tourists coming, not social distancing and not wearing masks and it’s very concerning. According to the Grand Traverse Health Department website we had two out-of-state travelers test positive. Both were symptomatic. They had traveled to Grand Traverse County to visit family, so we’re all nervous about what’s coming.

Back in March when this all started, I had [my daughter] go [to her dad’s house], for what would normally be a weekend while I was at work, and then I said, “Maybe you should stay there for a little bit and see what happens. Then I found out that I was directly exposed to a Covid patient and I was sick for a month. I had never felt that bad. It was a relief that I didn’t have her there, because I wouldn’t have wanted her to see what I looked like and felt like, nor have her exposed to this. 

ASW: As a board member of the Michigan Nurses Association, you must be well-informed about the experiences of so many of your fellow healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. What are the most common concerns, struggles, and perhaps successes that you’ve heard from them or that you’ve experienced yourself?

MB: I believe that the biggest concern is, is there enough PPE? They’re asking us to wear the same surgical masks for a week, unless it breaks or it’s visibly dirty. You see the pictures on the news of people using garbage bags as gowns to cover up their scrubs, because there’s not any waterproof ones, and I think that’s everywhere. 

You have a level of compassion, being a nurse, and suddenly it’s more difficult, though you still have it, because you have to put on all the [protective] stuff and try to be there even more for your patient because their family can’t be there. It’s mentally stressful, physically stressful, it’s very difficult.

And as far as wins, many hospitals now have agreements that if you’re immunocompromised and your doctor writes a note, then you don’t have to take care of Covid patients. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding then you don’t have to take care of Covid patients. And at first, my hospital did not have them, but then as a union, we said, “Hey, this is important. We need protection for these people.” And we got that.

ASW: What advice would you give to healthcare workers who do not have the protection of a union right now, or who may be seeking unionization?

MB: It’s completely worth it. It’s a lot of hard work to get it off the ground because union-busting is real. And it’s scary—but one of the first things I was told was, “the more out there you are, the more protected you are.” I was scared to do press interviews or be on TV or the radio, but I started understanding that concept more. And I was like, “You know what? You’re right—I would be an obvious target. But because why? Because I did this interview. So don’t be afraid.” And there are so many benefits to having a union. 

ASW: I also understand that your town is quite conservative and that in such communities, some people have doubted the seriousness of this crisis. How would you respond to this? 

MB: I was in the drugstore the other day and they have everywhere, “Stay six feet apart” and “Have a mask on” and this lady comes up right next to me in the checkout line. I turned around and I said, “Excuse me but you’re not six feet away from me,” and she got mad. I said, “Look, I’m a nurse at the hospital and I deal with Covid patientsI’m trying to protect you.” And she was still mad! It’s really hard when people in the public don’t think it’s real, when you’re a healthcare worker and you knowit’s real. And with people not practicing social distancing, it’s not going to go away.

In Traverse City over the weekend, we opened up a little bit. I kept seeing things on the news or Facebook posts about how it was so busy downtown. And people were getting mad as establishments said, “There’s too many people in here” or “You don’t have a mask on.” People feel entitled, and it’s unfortunate. I think for a lot of people, until they know somebody—you don’t wish this on anybody—but once this happens to somebody they care about, they can honestly understand that this is a real thing and it can happen to healthy people, it can happen to kids, it doesn’t care. 

ASW: I’d like to tie in Jewish identity to this conversation; I understand that Traverse City is largely non-Jewish & conservative; can you tell us something about how you identify as Jewish in your town?

MB: There’s one synagogue that I’m aware of [in Traverse City], and even without the pandemic, I think it just serves us monthly. The rabbi comes from out of town. I actually signed up for their newsletter today, so when they go back and are able to do things I will do it. 

Many people haven’t experienced Jewish people [here]; I’ve never had anyone be flat-out rude, but there are certainly people to whom I wouldn’t offer it up. Seeing that whole march on the capitol here, with people holding up swastikas and references to Hitlerthat was disturbing. And it seems that a lot of people who were in Lansing came from up North and drove down there for it.

ASW: In what ways might Jewish values inform your work?

MB: I try to treat people as I would like to be treated. I try to treat people equallyit doesn’t matter to me what ethnicity you are, what color your skin is, if you’re LGBTQ. I don’t careI want to take care of you. 

Traverse City is not very ethnically diverseit was a culture shock when I moved here [from Southfield, Michigan] and it still isbut I think being Jewish makes me more sensitive to different ethnicities and different cultures, and more accepting.

ASW: What are some changes to our healthcare system that you imagine we’ll see in the coming months or years, as a result of the pandemic?

MB: I would hope to see that we truly have a stockpile of the equipment that we need and also the knowledge. When something is brand-new, it’s the unknown. I think hospitals need to have a plan in case this does happen again, and for when there is the second surge that is most likely going to happen.

ASW: Is there anything else you would like to share about Covid, your experience, or the healthcare system in general?

MB: [In terms of talking to] union leaders, I have been fortunate enough to have met personally Heather Booth & Randi Weingarten, which was amazing. I especially remember Heather Booth; she was amazing. She stood up for people when it seemed like it was going to be impossible and she was fearless. It was just awe-inspiring to hear her and Randi speak. And I would have never had that opportunity, had I not been in this union I’m in.