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How to Cope with COVID-19? “Go the Extra Smile”

It’s been more than three months since the novel coronavirus became headline news, but in the past few weeks, as New Yorkers brace themselves for what could be a months-long public health crisis, home health aide Mahalia B. is calm and focused. Armed and informed with VNSNY patient and staff safety protocols, she’s got two secret weapons that make her a frontline health hero at Partners in Care: she loves to learn, and she knows how to get a smile from just about anyone.

Mahalia is a home health aide with VNSNY's Partners in Care“You just have to talk to people,” Mahalia says. “They are dealing with so many things. You have to find out about what’s going on in their minds. Are they afraid? Get them to talk it out with you.”

For Mahalia, each new client is a new adventure, and as New York City grapples with anxiety at levels reminiscent of 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, those adventures are earning her superstar status in the eyes of her clients and colleagues alike.

Remarkably, whether she’s arriving at a client’s home or meeting them at the hospital for a dialysis transport, it’s not Mahalia’s mask and gloves that you notice—it’s her eyes. “I like your smiling eyes,” one client told her recently. And that’s a key element in this aide’s strategy for keeping those she cares for as relaxed and engaged as possible during these difficult times.

“Take things slow,” Mahalia says. “You can learn a lot about someone if you just ask, and give them time to tell you about their life. It takes their mind off the troubles that are all around.”

When a client’s family was quarantined at home after a recent trip to France, and unable to come to visit with him, Mahalia did some sleuthing and discovered that a slice of cheesecake was the family’s favorite technique for cheering her client up. After serving the special dessert, Mahalia sat quietly with the client as he swallowed bite after bite and slowly began to open up, telling her about his life.

Though she says she’s spending more time these days wiping down often-touched surfaces like countertops, doorknobs, and faucets with disinfectant, the work she loves most is connecting with each person she visits. “Both are very important these days,” she emphasizes.

To help clients feel less anxious. especially during the COVID-19 public health crisis, Mahalia, who’s been an aide with Partners in Care for nearly two decades, suggests treating each person like a good book: Learn all you can about them, and help them focus on what they love most. “If they’re lonely, get them to call their families, or do a video chat. It really cheers people up to see or talk with someone they love.” And speaking of books, she notes, sometimes clients just want to sit quietly and read. “Then when they need a change of pace, we’ll take a walk inside the apartment and I’ll ask them to tell me about the book.”

Bathing someone can be an opportunity to calm the spirit as well. Mahalia says it’s especially important during stressful times to remember that the person you’re caring for is a ‘whole person.’ They’re not just someone you’re bathing—they’ve had a life, a job, they’ve traveled, and they have people and things that they love. “If they want to, let them talk, but learn to be comfortable just being quiet too,” she adds.

Some of Mahalia’s clients enjoy being pampered a bit, whether it’s a manicure/pedicure, a hand or shoulder massage, having their hair braided, or a receiving a relaxing shampoo. Mahalia finds ways to turn a client’s attention from worries to comfort, especially in difficult times like these. “When they smile, it makes it all worthwhile,” she says.

Remembering that you’re not alone is one of the most important elements of self-care, and it’s a big focus for Mahalia during stressful times. “I work with great people,” she says. “My supervisors always let me know they care about me, and that I’m part of a team. That really means a lot. Since this virus started, everybody’s checking in on everybody. It’s important.” Mahalia’s Administrative Supervisor, Melissa Martinez, echoes her sentiment. “Mahalia is great,” says Melissa. “She has such a good attitude and can get along with just about anyone. We know she’s taking extra precautions with her clients too, and really working hard to keep them safe.”

The COVID-19 crisis is evolving daily and health workers must stay attentive and remain agile as safety protocols change. That doesn’t bother Mahalia, who says that “every day is a chance to learn something new.” She puts her faith in her Partners in Care colleagues and in the doctors, nurses, and other clinicians she meets as she goes about her work. As Mahalia says, “We’re all in this together.”


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