Sepia Coleman has worked as a certified nursing assistant and home health aide for 24 years. In mid-May and in mid-July, she tested positive for the coronavirus. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Correction: The headline on a previous version of this story said that Sepia Coleman contracted the coronavirus from a patient. It has not been confirmed exactly how she was infected.

Taking care of others is second nature for Sepia Coleman. The certified nursing assistant (CNA) and home health aide has spent 24 years doing just that, including helping patients infected with COVID-19.

Then Coleman got the virus and needed a caretaker, but had to face the brutal invader alone at home.

Coleman, 48, tested positive for coronavirus on July 18, spent 10 days in the hospital then a month convalescing at home.

COVID’s cruelest irony awaited her there. The nursing assistant who looked after people for half of her life — feeding them, changing bed linens and soiled clothes, helping with hygiene and mobility — had no one to take care of her. She was under quarantine, and did not have medical insurance that could provide a home health aide.

The severity of her situation sank in as she faced the agonizing task of changing her bedsheets.

“I had to lean on my walker just to get up,” she said. She sat on the edge of her bed and sobbed.

Related: Home health aide: Working without PPE, sick leave is like ‘going in front of a firing squad’

But this Memphis caretaker is also a fighter. Coleman has been on the frontlines of the Memphis Fight for $15 labor movement, a national grassroots effort to get minimum wage raised to $15 an hour, and an outspoken advocate for health care employees.

The fight for her now is to recover, return to work full time and again speak up for essential workers.

“I never had anything put me in the hospital and shut me down like this. This is like a person who has had a stroke and is trying to regain everything they’ve lost.”

Her normal high energy has given way to frequent fatigue, and she continues to have headaches and lightheadedness.

Still she returned to her $10-an-hour part time job as a home health aide this week. She needed the money, she said.

“I do light housekeeping, run errands and grocery shop. … The patient understands I’m unable to do strenuous tasks.”

She is not strong enough to go back to her full time job as a CNA at a small geriatric health care facility, she said, though her employer is pressuring her to come back. That job pays $14 an hour.

Coleman began working at the geriatric facility June 4, and believes she contracted the virus from a patient who had tested positive, and with whom she had several interactions while wearing protective equipment. Other employees there contracted the coronavirus around the same time, she said.

Sick and fired

This was her second round of the virus, and by far the worst, she said. She was sick with similar symptoms — headaches, sore throat, pain and no appetite — in late April and early May when she worked at a nonprofit assisted living facility, where she earned $12.91 an hour.

Coleman has returned to her $10-an-hour part-time job despite the fact she still has fatigue, headaches, and dizziness. She needed the money, she said.

Coleman has returned to her $10-an-hour part-time job despite the fact she still has fatigue, headaches, and dizziness. She needed the money, she said.

A COVID-19 test conducted May 1 at the job was negative, Coleman was told, but she was convinced that she had it. She was tested again May 11 and the next day, she was fired after her employer confronted her about a critical Facebook post about the facility.

Two days later, Coleman learned her test was positive, she said.

Single cases of reinfection by coronavirus have been documented in the U.S. and Hong Kong, though the implications are still being studied by researchers.

Coleman wrote about her fear of catching the virus, and the lack of enough personal protective equipment for health care workers in an April essay for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

“I love what I do,” she wrote. “I have had scabies, been bitten by bedbugs and fleas, and had maggots on me from doing home health. I will admit I have worked in some deplorable conditions, and yet I still risk my life for a health care system that doesn’t give a f — about me and many others.

“Health care workers are on the battlefield with no protection at all. I am an overnight CNA (certified nursing assistant) for a nonprofit company, and I do home health care through another employer. We are the lowest paid, with no union rights in Memphis, so we have no voice during this crisis.”

Attack on the body and spirit

Coleman settled into her new job at the geriatric care facility in June. Then residents and employees began complaining of headaches and cold symptoms, including Coleman.

They were tested for COVID-19 on July 13. She was informed she was positive on July 18 and immediately left work and put her life on hold. She cancelled a July 20 speaking engagement at a Black Lives Matter event.

On July 22, Coleman’s brother went to her home to check on her after he couldn’t reach her by phone. He found her inside, slumped beside the door. When paramedics took her temperature, it was 103.

At the hospital, her symptoms worsened — chills, high fever, diarrhea and trouble breathing. She was given IV fluids, oxygen and pain medication and found out she had pneumonia in one lung.

She recovered enough to go home July 31, but the ordeal continued.

She was so weak that what should have been a quick shower took 90 minutes, after which she was wiped out. She lost nearly 30 pounds as she bounced between no appetite and bouts of vomiting.

She recently ended up in the emergency room where she learned she had irritable bowel syndrome due to the virus.

She missed her family while she was quarantined, especially her 3-year-old grandson Amir Anderson. After almost six weeks of separation, they renewed their bond last weekend.

Coleman has family members who are medically vulnerable to the coronavirus — two relatives have cancer, another has sickle cell anemia and another has lupus — and she was determined to not expose them.

Her daughter Dayton, who is Amir’s mother, talked with and texted her mom daily while she was in quarantine, but not being able to see her hit especially hard on Aug. 12. That was the first anniversary of the death of Dayton’s other child, who died at 11 months old.

“It’s been really hard seeing my mom down,” said Dayton. “It’s been a challenge.”

Depleted finances is virus casualty

When she was hospitalized for coronavirus, Coleman was still on probation at her full-time job at the geriatric care facility and not yet eligible for medical insurance. She estimates her medical bills will top $20,000.

Friends and supporters launched a GoFundMe campaign to help defray Coleman’s expenses. Two fundraisers netted nearly $7,000, said Jayanni Webster, a community activist and friend who helped with both fundraisers.

“Someone whose whole profession has been to take care of others was denied her own home health care because of the nature of the virus,” said Webster, who met Coleman in 2016 while they were working on the Fight for $15 campaign.

“We started the fundraiser because there was no way Sepia would have been able to recover at home without facing the threat of eviction or having her utilities cut off or even getting her medication,” said Webster.

“She deserves it. She’s a very kind and loving person. No one should have to go through this alone. We want her to have time to recover at home. …”

Throughout it all, Coleman has not lost her sense of optimism or her faith in God.

“I’m doing much better. I’m improving slowly but surely,” she said.

“I thought I was on my way out of here but I guess not. He’s not through with me yet.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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