From Randolph County to New Jersey to Atlanta to Opelika, that's the roadmap Valerie Walker has made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Valerie is a traveling nurse, so she goes where she is needed. Now she has made history as one of the first nurses around the country to give the COVID vaccine here in our area.
Valerie was born and raised in the northern part of Randolph County and received her nursing degree from West Georgia Technical College. Her first nursing position was at Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton where she worked for four years.
In 2020, the "storm" as she called it hit, and she felt like it was her duty to take a position elsewhere. "When COVID took over the nation, my hours were cut, and some nurses were even furloughed, especially in the South. I felt like it was my duty as a nurse to go up North to help out," she explained.
She talked with her family, including her two daughters, about making the move, and they were real hesitant, worried and nervous about her going but they know that nursing is her career and she has the passion to help. She made the move to Hackensack Hospital in New Jersey and worked in a satellite unit, a nursing home that had been turned into a COVID treatment center.
"There were no spaces available in the main hospital, so they set up a nearby nursing home for patients so we could administer medications. What some people didn't understand about my trip was I left my friends and family to go somewhere that I didn't know anybody, but I knew it was my duty. The nursing home was set up like the hospital with patients isolated in every room," she said.
One thing she remembers most was patients who didn't have any family and those who did, the only way they could communicate was through a phone or an iPad because no visitors are allowed. "I knew there were so many that were going to be taking their last breath and they just wanted to see their family one more time."
She knew it was her duty to go because nurses and staff were being overworked, stretched to the max and even workers were coming down with COVID. One experience she will never forget is how a small town girl went to the big city to work and was accepted. "The other nurses opened their arms to me and made me part of their family. Even today, some of the ones I worked with will send me messages, checking on me and seeing how I am doing. It still means so much that with me being away from my family at home, they became my family."
Valerie worked a 12-hour shift, about 60 hours a week on day shift. "At the end of my shift, I would leave the patients and didn't know if some of them would still be there when I got back. I would head back to the hotel where I was staying and what I looked forward to most was taking off that N95 mask."
She said it was lonesome not going back home to family and my bed. "When I got back to the room, I would take all my clothes off and put them in a bag. I would then shower and totally disinfect the room. I did this every day because I wanted to be safe."
Valerie said another hard thing she faced was knowing someone was about to pass away and they were alone. "No one should have to die alone, so I spent many hours just holding patients hands, trying to assure them it was going to be all right and I am here with you." She said there were patients she would never forget and to this day could remember their expressions as they were about to pass away.
After what she called "a long three months," Valerie came home for a week and went right back to work. Her next assignment was Piedmont Hospital in Newnan. "They needed help in every part of the hospital, so I worked on every floor, some were COVID and some not. It was a different situation, but then it wasn't that different. There were no visitors allowed, so all COVID patients were monitored from outside the rooms. It kind of reminded me of the statement 'Big Brother is watching,' so we could watch everything the patient was doing and how their vitals were doing."
After six weeks at Piedmont, she came home for a week and left again, this time a little closer to home. In August, she joined the staff at East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, working as a test site nurse. "I had been around actual patients but had never worked at an actual test site. All we did was swab the nose, but we had to completely suited up in our PPE."
She said when she first started, they were testing around 150 people a day then it went down to 80 or less. "Now it's picking back up again, and we're doing well over a hundred and I expect that number to go even higher."
The vaccine was approved last week, and she was offered a job at the site where vaccines are being given. "Never in a million years did I think when I stepped into this storm months ago that I would be one of the first ones from Randolph County to go to New Jersey, then to Georgia and now to Opelika to be one of the first ones to administer the vaccine." Last week she was featured on a television newscast in Columbus, Ga., administering the vaccine.
After all these months, Valerie wants everyone to know COVID is real, it can make people sick and even take someone's life, she has seen it all. "Everybody needs to be careful, but you know you can't make anybody do anything they don't want to do, like social distance or wear a mask. I wish people would take precautions; it's not that difficult. Wash your hands, don't touch your face, use hand sanitizer, don't go out if you feel sick, all very simple to do. If you don't want to protect yourself, protect someone else. I respect people, but if they don't want to protect themselves, they won't realize the consequences until it slaps them in the face."
Valerie has not taken the vaccine yet but says she will later on. "I feel like there are people that are more at risk than me, and they need to take it first."
In closing, Valerie said, "This about sums up my year: I walked into the fire and I haven't looked back. I feel like it is my duty as a nurse to take care of people that other people are scared to take care of."