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This nurse cared for the lives of black mothers and their babies. Covid-19 took hers.

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This story is part of “Faces of the dead,” an ongoing series exploring the lives of Americans who have died of the novel coronavirus.

Long before Judy Wilson-Griffin became a perinatal clinical nurse specialist, her grandmother worked as a midwife caring for pregnant and postnatal women in Alabama. That ancestral legacy followed Wilson-Griffin’s grandmother to St. Louis, where Wilson-Griffin would further her family’s tradition of tenderly nursing black women giving life to future generations.

Wilson-Griffin advocated for patients who had higher rates of infant and maternal mortality and championed her children and grandchildren through life’s vicissitudes and celebratory moments.

The same month she contracted the novel coronavirus, Wilson-Griffin was finalizing her latest endeavor: creating a maternal triage acuity index for pregnant women.

But on March 20, the day her proposal was scheduled for approval by her academic adviser, Wilson-Griffin succumbed to the virus. The 63-year-old was the first person in St. Louis County to die of covid-19.

She was a “gentle driving force for change,” said Laura Kuensting, her committee chair for her doctor of nursing practice program at the University of Missouri, St. Louis College of Nursing.

“Her number one motivation was because she cared about the health of women, especially black women and their babies,” Kuensting said.

At Barnes Hospital, now BJC Hospital, where Wilson-Griffin worked from 1981 through 2007, she was instrumental in creating the state’s first maternal transport teams for high-risk pregnant mothers when she learned black women and their babies had a higher mortality rate in the United States.

Her new venture was through her clinical scholarship project for her program, from which she was scheduled to graduate in December.

Kuensting and Wilson-Griffin were scheduled to meet on the evening of March 20 to review the proposal, but when the typically prompt Wilson-Griffin didn’t arrive on time, concern washed over Keunsting.

She waited about 30 minutes for a response from Wilson-Griffin before tapping into her nursing network, which confirmed Wilson-Griffin’s death. “I was devastated,” Keunsting said.

Wilson-Griffin’s death underscores the disparity with which the virus is ravaging black populations across the country. The grandmother of four had been living with lupus for years, according to her daughter, Valerie Griffin. The disease is three times more common in black women than white women. Wilson-Griffin’s health history and her age made her more susceptible to complications caused by the virus.

Wilson-Griffin’s commitment to others had been recognized at all levels by friends, family and also the nursing community, which awarded her the 2019 March of Dimes Missouri Chapter Nurse of the Year in Women’s Health and Obstetrics.

Her death has left behind a stunned medical community that respected her passion for marginalized women and their unborn children, and a family in pain.

Compassionate caregiver

Wilson-Griffin had a knack for doing the unorthodox for the benefit of those who needed her help, said her longtime friend and colleague Pamela Lesser, director of perinatal services at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center, where Wilson-Griffin last worked as a perinatal clinical nurse specialist.

The model of care in the 1980s was for newborns to remain in the nursery most of the time after a birth, Lesser said.

Wilson-Griffin told the other hospital staff that the mother was going to take the baby home in a few days, and that the hospital wouldn’t be caring for the infant after the hospital stay ended, according to Lesser.

“The baby’s staying in the room because it’s the right thing to do,” Lesser remembered Wilson-Griffin saying when a mother wanted her baby in her room overnight.

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It wasn’t the first time her intuition led her to help a patient in an unusual way.

As a U.S. Navy Reserve Nurse Corps member deployed overseas during the Gulf War, she helped a soldier who had endured sleepless nights because he heard voices.

The labor and delivery nurse had no expertise in this kind of medical care, but she wanted to help, Lesser recalled of her friend’s active-duty time, which also required her to set up a field hospital that had nothing to do with birthing babies.

She told the distressed man that she would put the voices in the refrigerator overnight for him so he could sleep. The young man slept through the night.

“She got in trouble because they said he was going to have a food aversion,” Lesser told The Washington Post, laughing as she recalled the story.

Wilson-Griffin’s tenacity for knowledge and advancing patient care inspired other nurses confronting complex problems to think: “What would Judy do?”

Lesser and Wilson-Griffin’s collaborations on ideas and projects created such a tightknit relationship that the two joked they shared a brain. Sometimes mail would arrive to the hospital addressed to “Pamela Wilson” or “Judy Lesser.”

“In many ways, she was more like a sister to me,” Lesser said.

Something about her

Of her achievements, the connection Wilson-Griffin formed with her daughter, Valerie Griffin, was one of her most prized.

Valerie Griffin was in her 20s when she met the woman who eventually became her stepmother. Her father, Tyrone Griffin, had been divorced for years, and his daughter watched him navigate the dating scene. When she met Wilson-Griffin for the first time, Valerie said she “loved her instantly.”

The new woman in her father’s life had a compelling warm energy that effortlessly won over Griffin and her brother, Tyrone Griffin Jr.

She watched as her father courted Wilson-Griffin, the woman who would offer Valerie Griffin dating advice over dinners and a supportive ear during shopping ventures.

The two women grew closer when Tyrone Sr. became ill with lung cancer in January 1996. She lent her medical expertise to be hands-on with his medical treatment plan and comforted Valerie Griffin throughout her father’s swift decline. His rapidly devolving health welded the two women together.

“I don’t know what we would’ve done without her,” Griffin said.

Tyrone and Judy married in April 1996. He died two months later. She remained a Wilson-Griffin until her last day.

“She loved my father,” Griffin said. “Loved him.”

When Griffin’s mother died three years after her father, Wilson-Griffin salved her daughter’s loss by becoming the maternal figure young adults need as they try to balance moving through the world and figuring out who they are.

She would be there for Griffin throughout her first pregnancy and in the delivery room when she gave birth to her daughter, MaKayla, who is now 14.

“The minute I started going into labor, she started calling her friends,” Griffin said. “Everyone was looking for me and looking after me.”

Wilson-Griffin remembered her daughter’s gynecologist from the days when he was a resident at the hospital. At least 20 other people connected to Wilson-Griffin were in her daughter’s room, cheering her on and caring for her through her delivery.

Her presence would remain steadfast at soccer, basketball and field hockey games her granddaughters would play or violin recitals she found time to attend. Wilson-Griffin would take the girls and her grandson, T.J., on summer vacations that included a train ride to Chicago or caravan trips to the Deep South, where she would visit family.

Pray for Nana

In mid-March, as news of the novel coronavirus spread across the country and organizations started canceling large gatherings, Wilson-Griffin drove to Indianapolis to attend a professional nursing conference. Griffin fussed at her mom for deciding to go despite the risk.

Griffin said this conference needed to be her last for a while.

The next week, Wilson-Griffin was hospitalized with pneumonia, a condition she had experienced before because of her lupus.

Wilson-Griffin told her daughter she might be able to see her once she was cleared by doctors. Griffin told her mom to keep her posted. She asked her daughters to pray for their nana.

The next day, Griffin texted her mom but heard nothing. She would eventually learn her mother had been sedated because her breathing had become labored. Wilson-Griffin was diagnosed with the virus on a Wednesday. By Friday, her dear friend Lesser suited up in protective gear to see her and to report back to the family.

The family never got to tell her goodbye.

The virus had caused her organs and health functions to shut down. Wilson-Griffin died before doctors could remove her from a ventilator.

She was buried with her late husband in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.

Birthdays above

At midnight on what would’ve been her 64th birthday, more than five weeks after Wilson-Griffin died, her granddaughters wished her a happy birthday in the family’s group text.

“We love and miss you already,” one text read. The other wished her fun in heaven.

The family gathered at Wilson-Griffin’s home later that day to release pillow-shaped balloons into the sky with messages for her eyes only.

Griffin tied a red heart-shaped balloon with a handwritten note in turquoise script.

“I just thanked her for just being the best stepmom,” Griffin said. “She wasn’t a stepmom. She was a mom.”