Sepia Coleman stands for a portrait outside her home.
Sepia Coleman has had COVID twice and feels the health care system failed her. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Sepia Coleman admits that her life has not been easy. COVID made it nearly unbearable. 

When Coleman wrote her essay for MLK50 in April 2020, she had two health care jobs — a full-time position as a certified nursing assistant at a long-term care facility where she was paid $12.91 an hour, and a part-time job as a home health aide where she made $10.50 an hour.

Sepia Coleman
Age: 50
Neighborhood: Berclair 
Occupation: Transitional housing assistant with Peabody House. Coleman was formerly a home health aide and certified nursing assistant and hopes to someday return to the work. 

She loved the work so much that she emphatically called it “a gift from GOD,” even though it was hard, and after more than two decades in the field, did not pay enough to make ends meet. Coleman complained that there was no sick time at either employer, protective supplies were limited, and workers were even discouraged from getting tested for COVID, though they were caring for very vulnerable people.

A follow-up story five months later found Coleman recovering from a serious case of COVID. She had spent 10 days in the hospital, then a month convalescing at home with no help. The career caretaker did not have insurance that would have provided a home health aide because she had recently left her former full-time job and did not yet qualify for insurance at the new one. Family members who would have helped her had medical conditions that prevented it.

Coleman suspected that she had the virus twice, before she was vaccinated. Cases of reinfection by coronavirus have been documented and shown more than twice as likely to happen among the unvaccinated.

“I never had anything put me in the hospital and shut me down like this,” Coleman said. “This is like a person who has had a stroke and is trying to regain everything they’ve lost,” she told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism at the time. 

Still, she returned to her part time job as a home health aide because she needed the work. 

“The health care system is not broken, it is shattered beyond repair,” she said.

A year and a half later

Coleman has reluctantly left the home health care field because she became disillusioned with the system and what she was expected to do with little support, no protection from contracting illnesses and low pay.

“Having gone through what I went through, having COVID twice, I lost all respect for the health care system — where I gave my loyalty, my dedication, my life. I went through a very deep state of depression,” she said. “I lost a major part of me. I think God is trying to tell me, ‘You dedicated your life to a system that failed you.’”

Sepia Coleman sits on the couch in her home.
Coleman changed the course of her career during the pandemic. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

She now works full time with a transitional housing program in Memphis called Peabody House, a part of  Recovery Within Reach, a resource for people seeking help for issues such as mental illness, substance use disorder and homelessness.

Coleman makes $15 an hour and has health benefits but still struggles to afford the rent, pay the mounting bills from payday loans with exorbitant interest rates, and contend with the lingering effects of the virus — weakness and “brain fog” the worst.

Coleman has been in the job for more than a year and said she feels “safe.” She has been vaccinated against the virus. But it still felt like it was not enough.

Coleman recently accepted a weekend, part-time position with a behavioral health company as a mental health residential technician, working 12-hour overnight shifts. While it will supplement her income, she wonders whether the extra hours (at $15 an hour) will make enough of a dent in her debts.

She is hopeful but doubts that she will ever return to work in home health care.

Coleman, who has worked on the “Fight for $15 Campaign” with other activists pushing for living wages for workers, said she feels like she has somehow lost that voice, too. It has been a while since she has been in contact with the activists — some of whom helped raise money for Coleman while she struggled with the effects of having COVID. Two fundraisers brought in nearly $7,000.

“That [fundraiser] was a tremendous help. A godsend,” she said. Even so, “I feel like I don’t matter. Even though I am making $15 an hour, there are so many more out there I want to fight for, and I feel like I can’t.”

Part of the reason might be that Coleman’s life is still a personal struggle — much of it exacerbated by the pandemic. On the day she was interviewed recently, she said she was “overwhelmed.”

She pays $500 a month rent and thinks it may soon increase to $600. “Rent has gone up, payday loans are killing me. … And I am trying to go forward, not backward. I don’t have luxuries, like most people. I don’t want anything extravagant, just to be safe.”

The mother of two adult daughters, Coleman said she is about to be a grandmother for a third time next year. She tries to stay hopeful, for them.

“My grandkids are the future. I just want to keep giving back.”

Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.

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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