Tonya Waddell wouldn’t leave her little brother’s bedside.

Terry Lankford was about 8 years old then, and he had knocked himself silly running into the family’s front door, which was fashioned from iron. For the Lankford kids, growing up in Ridgeway, Va., an ice pack sufficed for a head injury. There would be no trip to the emergency room. Instead, Waddell, just three years older and already behaving like the second mother in the house, acted as an intensive care nurse, staying awake all night and holding an ice pack to her brother’s forehead.

“She has a big heart,” Lankford said. “She wants to help everyone.”

Waddell has long been a caretaker, so it doesn’t surprise her family that since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic she has volunteered to work in three hot spots around the country, putting herself at risk to help others in need.

In early April, when a call went out to staff at Fresenius Kidney Care in Martinsville, Va., Waddell, a dialysis nurse, volunteered to travel to Newark and work in overextended hospitals that treated patients suffering from the effects of the coronavirus.

For two weeks, Waddell, who was one of 1,400 Fresenius Medical Care North America employees to volunteer across the country, worked at various hospitals and experienced the impact of the virus firsthand. She saw patients on ventilators, some stricken by acute kidney injury and needing dialysis, and exhausted ICU nurses, their faces wrinkled and bruised from wearing goggles for endless shifts. She also saw death.

Waddell convinced herself she had seen enough.

“At the time, I thought two weeks was my limit, honestly. I didn’t really realize I could stay longer,” Waddell said. “I almost allowed fear to take over.”

Then she volunteered for more.

Waddell, 45, raised her hand for a three-week deployment in Boston, then followed that by spending two additional weeks caring for the sick in Chicago. Each time, she filled her suitcase with scrubs, a reusable face shield, a plate and silverware. She also always remembered to pack her Bible and the plush sloth stuffed animal her boyfriend gave her.

The trips were never easy. Waddle would leave behind her five children, two of whom are minors, and her mother, Carolyn Lankford, who is fighting Stage IV lung cancer and whom Waddle has been caring for. Waddell fretted the stealthy coronavirus might follow her back home, an unwelcome guest somehow attached to her scrubs even though she had always washed them after shifts. She worried about her mom, who had to move in with Terry while she worked in distant cities. If she ever called back home, doubting her decision to leave, her brother would lie about how concerned they were.

“That’s when I give her a little fib and say: ’100 percent! You did the right thing!’ ” Terry Lankford said. “I didn’t want her to get sick and then I lose her. Those are the concerns any loving family member would have. … We were supportive, but we were worried for her health.”

Despite all the risks, Waddell weighed her personal concerns against the strong pull to help the most vulnerable.

“I just feel like it’s my calling to help,” Waddell said. “I just couldn’t sit by and watch others struggle.”

That young caregiver who wouldn’t let anything happen to her brother while he slept also knows what it’s like to be the patient fighting for her life. She was 14 when her appendix ruptured and she was admitted to a hospital two weeks later. She remembers doctors calling her recovery a “miracle” but also specifically recalls the compassion and care she received from nurses.

Waddell took nursing classes during high school at a local community college, but after graduation she gave up on her calling. For 16 years, Waddell worked in a nylon manufacturing plant. Eventually she went back to school to become a nurse. She has spent the past nine years aiding others, so when the pandemic hit, Waddell’s loved ones knew — whether they liked it or not — that she would put herself on the front lines.

“I figured it,” Terry Lankford said. “I figured she would try to do something crazy.”

“I don’t know if it is adrenaline or what, but people run to where they’re needed,” her brother continued. “That’s kind of the way she is.”

While she was away, Waddell was not immune to the skepticism some people have expressed around the country. She grew exasperated reading social media posts that tried to debunk the threat of the virus and felt overwhelmed when even friends or fellow church members would ask her, “Is it as real as they make it out to be?”

Waddell could have told them about the adult male patient in Newark who was so lonely because family couldn’t visit that he asked if he could call her “Mommy.” Or how she would get to work at 9 a.m. and leave 12 hours later because so many patients needed dialysis administered. She instead went to Facebook and posted a message to the masses: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. This is serious.

“The virus is real, and to see it with your own eyes, it was — unbelievable,” Waddell said.

Still, Waddell said she would volunteer again. Though she returned from her stint in Chicago on June 21, another company email recently went out soliciting help in Texas and Arizona, where the coronavirus is raging. Waddell said she is considering this fourth trip. She knows the virus is still present, and she knows someone out there needs her help.

“It’s hard, but it’s like you have to know you made a difference. Even if it was bad. Even if the person doesn’t make it. You made a difference. You tried. You reached out. I put myself out there and I tried to help them either by treatment or talking, holding a hand or praying,” Waddell said. “I definitely think it’s made me a better person as well as a better nurse.”

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