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The Wind Beneath Our Wings

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
May 9, 2020

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This week I taught my classes, participated in university meetings, attended church, took a Pilates class, completed jigsaw puzzles with my California granddaughter and visited with grandchildren in California and Germany. Next week I will do the same. I have left my home twice in 54 days: once to mail my primary ballot and once to shop during the elder hours at the grocery. I do not expect to leave my home for at least another 26 days.

During this pandemic, I can stay safe and still stay connected because of technology and heroes who put their lives at risk for the rest of us. Those heroes generally fall into two categories: low wage workers who provide life necessities such as food delivery, and public servants who maintain needed services. We do not normally think of either group as heroes. In fact, we often vilify public servants as faceless bureaucrats. However, both groups are essential to our daily lives. The purpose of this column is to focus on a tiny few of the heroic public servants who have given their lives for us during this challenging time.

The first set of heroic public servants involves those who staff public healthcare organizations. These employees include doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and cleaning staff. Parallel to their counterparts in private institutions, public healthcare workers have dealt with lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). In some states that lack has caused a 20% infection rate among healthcare staff.

Divina Accad, a Veterans Affairs (VA) nurse in Detroit, Michigan was the first Detroit area health care worker COVID-19 fatality. Vianna Thompson died in the same intensive care unit of the VA Medical Center where she worked as a nurse in the Reno, Nevada. Dr. Doug Bass succumbed to COVID-19 after he refused to work from home as Medical Director for Phoenix House, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment center. Joyce Pacubas-Le Blanc, a University of Illinois Medical Center nurse, worked in the neuroscience intensive care unit, which was considered a “clean” section of the hospital but had admitted asymptomatic COVID-19 patients.

The second set of heroic public servants is public safety workers. These workers include police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT). They are the people that arrive first at the emergency site. In normal times, they risk their lives daily. During the pandemic that risk is increased, both because of the shortage of PPE and the fact that the virus is extremely contagious.

Kejuane Bates was a police officer in Vidalia, Mississippi. His public service extended from his DARE work in schools to the Forest Aid Baptist Church where he ministered as a pastor. Richard Campbell was an Edison, New Jersey firefighter for 28 years. He came from a fire fighting family and was known as someone who rushed to danger to help others. Michael Field was a firefighter-EMT in Valley Stream, New York. He had responded to a medical emergency involving a COVID-19 case. However, this was not his first experience with a crisis. He responded to the World Trade Center on September 11.

Other public workers are the third group. This group, which is perhaps less noticeable than the first two, includes: postal workers, bus drivers, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees, corrections officers, meat inspectors and social workers. These less visible people also are risking their lives to provide unbroken government service during the pandemic.

Four days after he raised concerns about a passenger coughing without protection on his vehicle, Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove became sick and subsequently died from COVID-19. Francis Boccabella III, the first TSA employee to die from COVID-19, “Was dedicated to protecting the traveling public,” as an Explosive Detection Canine Handler. Sheila Rivera, a corrections officer at Cook County Jail, “Liked helping people that were less fortunate than her.” Anthony Smith who worked at the Detroit National Distribution Center was the first postal worker to die from COVID-19.

It is appropriate that this column, which follows Public Service Recognition Week, is devoted to a few of the public sector heroes who have lost their lives serving us during this pandemic. However, recognition of public sector heroes is not meant to diminish private sector efforts in this difficult period. Private sector heroes include those supplying food to healthcare workers and the unemployed, distilleries producing free hand sanitizer, musicians providing free online concerts, individuals producing face masks with their home sewing machines, those with 3D printers producing face masks and ventilator parts, and those checking in and running errands for others. These brave people and organizations are heroes as well. The below words which Bette Midler sang many years ago best express my feelings about all of the special people in the public and private sectors who are selflessly working and risking their lives toward our greater good in this difficult time:

Did you ever know that you’re my hero,
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle,
For you are the wind beneath my wings.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last Federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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