Immigrant Stories: Lisa Gwaikolo, Liberian American Essential Worker, Shares her COVID-19 ExperienceNov 10, 2020 05:01PM ● By Nana Ama Addo, Photo Credit: Laura Elam
The sacrifice of an essential worker during COVID-19 is not to be taken lightly. Philadelphia’s immigrant community is bustling with survivors, and a pandemic presents the working class immigrant community with yet another mountain to cross. Lisa Gwaikolo is a young Liberian immigrant woman and essential worker in Philadelphia who was forced to rebuild her life after war, and now soldiers through a pandemic with grace, because she has been strengthened by hardship. With a sound support system, faith and courage, Lisa Gwaikolo, Respiratory Specialist, stands strong while facing the challenges of being a medical responder, mother, child of God and neighbor during COVID-19.
Lisa’s community helped relieve some of the trials brought by her status as an essential worker. Because she works at a hospital with a hectic schedule, her son went to stay with her sister. She also received support from her parents, pastor, church community and neighbors. Lisa says “For 4 months my son went to stay with my sister. My neighbors took care of me. They would clean the yard for me and buy me and my colleagues lunch. My church family and my bishop also played a huge role in praying for me.”
Eliza Davies, Lisa’s sister, says: “I will do anything for my sister. My family and I were glad to be there for her and her son. We were gravely worried about her well-being, as she was on the frontline battling COVID-19. I checked on her constantly and encouraged her as much as I could.”
Lisa’s father, a prayer warrior, gives testimony to the reality of having a family member who is an essential worker in this field during COVID: “For nearly three months I couldn't see my daughter, Zozeh, as a result of her engagement as a frontline worker. My only satisfaction came when I spoke with her and she told me she loved me and I said the same. I became so prayerful for her and never one day relented in my prayers for her and her colleagues who risked their lives for us.”
A woman of family and faith, Lisa leaned on a higher power during this time. “Every single day I would say my prayer and sit in my car for 30 minutes before going into work. It was so scary. It was hectic and chaotic, but we overcame it and that’s something I’m grateful for.”
Lisa notes her pastor, Bishop Francis B. Thomas, as one of her pillars of support during this time. Bishop Francis B. Thomas says:
“My role during the onset of this pandemic was first spiritual and then of emotional support. It carved a deep lesson for me to see a young woman in the frontline of an epidemic war. Lisa was resilient. My obligation was to keep her in prayers and intermittently call her or meet her in person to encourage her in the middle of an emotionally draining pandemic.
The lesson of her resilience and safety measures on the frontline became a tool whenever I gave her the opportunity to share her experience and story with us. Her experience became a positive platform of hope for me and many.”
In hopes that Lisa’s sacrifices do not go in vain, she tells audiences: “ I worked 17 days in a row. 12 hour night shifts...For the people that say COVID is not real, I wish I could take a picture of people in the hospital with tubes hooked into every part of their body, fighting for their lives.. There were times where I would have to extubate a patient, and the family would have to say goodbye on facetime. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. I saw firsthand how ravaging it is.”
At a time when one of her patients had COVID, Lisa found it hard to sleep. The uncertainty of how to protect oneself from COVID was an alarming process for Lisa, her colleagues and the health industry. Lisa says:
“COVID changed the ballgame for everyone in the health field. We really didn’t know what COVID was at the beginning. We were hearing so many things from different outlets and we didn’t know what to believe, including the mode of transmission. Going to work was scary. Every time we walked into that door, something new was going on.
The unknown about COVID was what made it so scary for my colleagues and I. We were so nervous. When COVID hit, when patients would come through, we were just going to assume they were infected with COVID...We were running out of equipment. Most of the stuff was coming from China and there was a delay in the supply.”
Lisa and her professional community have become closer while working during COVID, and in addition to aiding patients, aid each other. “We would wear the N-95 and we would put a surgical mask on top of it. Then, we would wear a face shield and goggles to protect our eyes. Then, we would wear our gown, and an isolation gown. So we are doing all of these things and we have to do it in a fast paced manner, because this person is dying. Sometimes I would forget to put my eyewear on...My colleagues are a blessing. We always keep each other’s safety a priority.”
Despite the hardship Lisa is facing, she exudes grace and gratefulness, and has overcome so much to get to where she is today that she is inspired to keep going. “I saw what it means to have nothing, including going from having everything, an average middle class life, and losing everything at once in Liberia. Coming here gave me the appreciation for life and hard work, because I know what it means to have nothing. So many people would give so much to be in the position I am in.”
Nana Ama Addo is a writer, multimedia strategist, film director and performance artist. She graduated with a BA in Africana Studies from the College of Wooster, and studied at the University of Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Visit her storytelling brand at www.asieduasimprint.blog, and connect with her creative agency on Instagram: @chitheagency.
This article has been made possible by the Independence Public Media Foundation.