Editor’s Note: The Human Impact is an ongoing series about marginalized people in our communities and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 upon them.
HOLLY SPRINGS • The first time Tenobia White, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) and medical assistant from Holly Springs, tested positive for COVID-19, she was convinced it had to be a fluke … so convinced, in fact, that she was tested a second time. Then a third.
It was July, and though White was sick, she thought it could simply be sinus issues related to her regular seasonal allergies.
The subsequent tests came back negative, but by August she was so sick that she almost passed out and had to go to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford, where she underwent observation for almost eight hours.
“I just prayed to God I didn’t have to be hospitalized because I have a lot on my plate already,” White said.
At the time, White was working at a nursing home in Holly Springs. While they initially didn’t see positive cases among patients and employees, White said as the months went by, the numbers gradually started to come in. As of Jan. 11, the Mississippi State Department of Health reports 222 outbreaks among the state’s long-term care facilities. In Marshall County, White’s home, there have been 64 long-term care outbreaks and 15 deaths.
Part of the slow initial spread could be due to the limits nursing homes and other long-term care facilities put on visitation to protect their elderly residents, who are more vulnerable to serious or fatal COVID-19 symptoms. However, the lack of visitation meant White’s job became more heartbreaking as depression set in for residents who relied on love and affection from their loved ones. Many residents were accustomed to seeing their loved ones regularly; White struggled with seeing residents suffer without that attention because of the pandemic.
“Working as a CNA in nursing homes today is hard,” she said. “It’s hard on your body. It’s hard on your mind. And with COVID being around, these people lean on you more and more.”
The mother of four felt COVID-19’s stress on her life since day one. Her kids, who were in elementary and middle school, were out on Spring Break in March 2020 when COVID-19 caused the rest of their semester to go virtual. The adjustment was hard for her children, who weren’t used to learning in front of a laptop and needed class attention to do well.
White stepped into the gap as much as she could. Even though she often had to educate herself as she went along, she became their teacher. All summer, she balanced working and making sure her kids were still learning.
“(COVID-19) hindered me from doing things because I had to work, then I had to care for my kids, plus I had to care for my grandfather, who’s disabled and lives here with me, while trying to be the backbone and support for my family,” White said.
White worked hard to give her family the life they currently have. Born in Jolliet, Illinois, White has lived in Holly Springs for “30 years out of (her) 33,” ever since her grandmother moved her family there to prevent her uncles from getting involved with gangs.
When she was 19, White had her eldest daughter and made a change. She was working at Walmart and different odd jobs, but wanted to find a trade. She decided to become a health care assistant. She enrolled at Northwest Mississippi Community College to be a CNA, which she’s been since 2008. She later went back to school in 2016 to to be certified as a medical assistant, graduating from Concorde Career College in Southaven in 2017.
“I just love health care. I love taking care of people. That’s my passion, especially the elderly,” White said.
White considers herself a dreamer, so even during a summer filled with so much strife, she was working on a business plan to open her own home care agency. As a mother, she wanted to open a business to set an example for her children. She even got as far as deciding her would-be business’s name: Nobi’s Helping Hands.
But she had to put those dreams on pause. She worried about the fact the numbers were increasing and her family had underlying health conditions, and if she should return full time to the nursing home or become a PRN – a health care employee that works as the need arises.
Because her children are younger and there was no one else to care for them, she decided to be a PRN. She eventually picked up extra work by working at Ashley Furniture in Tippah.
“It’s horrible that I had to make that change and I feel like it’s because of COVID that I had to make that decision,” White said.
It was even harder when coupled with not being able to see friends and family. White comes from a big family. They would gather at her grandmother’s house, located just around the corner from her own, for every major holiday. Even family members from up north would come in occasionally.
However, each holiday was skipped this year. She hasn’t even been able to socialize with friends outside of Facetime and Duo.
“Everything is just virtual,” she said. “I want a hug. I want to be able to shake a hand, let’s go sit down at the table and eat, just play cards.”
By November, White became sick again. This time, she had throbbing headaches, a body ache, slight fever and exhaustion. She went to the emergency room around Nov. 30, her last day of full work at Ashley Furniture, for the throbbing pain. Her blood pressure was elevated, and White said they performed a CT scan on her head and had to give her shots for the pain.
“Now never in a million years did I think that a throbbing headache would mean that I had COVID, but I tested positive for COVID,” White said. “I got home, disinfecting and cleaning and just, Lord, trying to take care of these kids.”
Her biggest concern, she said, was ensuring her children and grandfather didn’t contract the disease.
“Their immune systems are not as strong as mine,” she said.
White was surprised that she became infected. She’s cautious … keeps hand sanitizer, Lysol and sanitizing wipes in her car and cleans daily.
However, in Marshall County, White said a lack of universal masking and enforcement of current mask mandates has caused cases to increase. When she shops, she often sees people without masks.
In Marshall County, there have been 3,291 reported cases and 64 deaths as of Jan. 11, and has averaged a seven-day average of 37.7 new cases.
“It needs to be enforced,’ White said. “Regardless of what people think about COVID, you need to take it seriously regardless of where it came from.”
After her diagnosis, she made everyone in her family get tested. They all came back negative. Even though she was sick, she still had her daily responsibilities. She had to help her kids with schoolwork and find someone to take her grandfather to his dialysis treatments three days a week. She stayed in quarantine until Dec. 12, and the entire time her energy level was low and she had no strength. Friends helped her through this time, and she received financial assistance through Mississippi United to End Homelessness in Tupelo to help pay her rent.
Adjusting to life after her illness has been arduous and full of uncertainty. But White is a prayer and a dreamer, and hasn’t let the pandemic stifle either of those things.
On Jan. 1, her cousin called her with a potential home care client … her first. She started working the next day with her patient. White took it as a sign to pursue her dream of having her own home care business.
White is now working for herself under her business, Nobi Helping Hands. While she only has a single client, she’s glad to be doing what she loves. It’s the first step on what she believes will be a long, successful journey.
“This is what I love to do,” she said. “Despite COVID, I still pushed out. I’m not homeless. (My family’s) not lacking for anything ... We have everything we need, and I’m still working, and now I’m pursuing a dream.”