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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


ICU nurse takes vaccine for patients and her mom

Toni Woods got her second dose of COVID-19 vaccine this week. Then she walked downstairs and went to work, even though it wasn’t her normal shift.

“I knew they needed more help. We’re pretty busy,” said Woods, a nurse in the ICU at Baptist Memorial Hospital.

Woods hasn’t missed a shift in the pandemic. Like many front-line health workers, caring for others is more than a job or occupation for her. It’s a calling.

“I honestly couldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t feel God with me,” said Woods, who grew up in Memphis and graduated from Immaculate Conception High and Baptist Memorial College of Health Sciences. “We get the sickest of the sick, and there are so many of them.”

Woods got her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine about a week before Christmas. Her left arm was sore for a few hours, but she felt fine and kept working.

“ICU nurses like Toni are holding the system together,” said Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease expert who treats patients at Baptist every day. “Their courage and compassion and dedication is literally saving lives every day. The pressure on them is enormous. The vaccine will help.”

When Woods first heard about a vaccine, she had her doubts. She wasn’t sure she would get it. But she does whatever it takes to help her patients, not to mention her ailing mother she hasn’t been able to hug since the pandemic began.

“It’s hard for both of us. We’re huggers,” Woods said. “I go see her from my car and wave. I stand by the car and she stands by her door and talks, but I refuse to go anywhere near her. I cannot take that risk. I’m a very spiritual person, but I still trust science.”

The first vaccine dose made her feel safer. Still, she wasn’t about to take any chances.

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Woods, who is single, celebrated Christmas on Zoom with her mother and her sister, also a nurse. They watched “Mulan” and then watched each other open presents, all on their laptops.

“I didn’t go anywhere for New Year’s,” she said. “I just stayed home. I don’t go anywhere other than work. I miss going out, but I’ve seen what this virus can do.”

Woods was a respiratory therapist for several years before she became a nurse. She’s worked in Baptist’s ICU for about three years.

“I’m good with vents,” she said.

Registered nurse Toni Woods gets her second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Baptist Memorial Hospital, where she works in ICU. (Courtesy Baptist Memorial Hospital)
Registered nurse Toni Woods gets her second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Baptist Memorial Hospital, where she works in ICU. (Courtesy Baptist Memorial Hospital)

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that can infect and inflame the lungs and spread.

About 80% of people who have COVID-19 get mild to moderate symptoms. Another 15% of cases are severe and require hospitalization.

About 5% of cases are critical, causing acute respiratory distress syndrome or severe pneumonia as lungs fill with fluid.

Some critically ill patients develop life-threatening clots in the lungs, heart, brain or legs. Those are the cases that require intensive care.

“In the very beginning, everyone thought it was like the flu,” Woods said. “We were still trying to figure it out, how bad the lungs were affected. As things started to pick up, we quickly realized it wasn’t the flu. It was much more serious.”

Deadly serious. Woods’s first COVID-19 patient was a physician. He was over age 65, but he was physically fit and very active. He declined rapidly and died.

“He kept telling me that he knew we were doing the best we could do for him, and he loved us,” Woods said. “That will always stay with me. I didn’t even know him and I think about him every day.”

Woods is a registered nurse, but the highly contagious coronavirus has required even more of her.

She cares for patients struggling to breathe in the ICU. She also cares for family members struggling to cope with the sudden, looming death of a loved one they can’t be with.

“Family members look at you as extended family,” she said. “To be there for them because they can’t be there. It’s an honor and a big responsibility and exhausting. I try to be there for everyone.”

Like other front-line health care workers, Woods is bedeviled by the randomness of the disease.

She doesn’t know why some people who are infected barely notice while others die. She doesn’t know why some ICU patients survive while others don’t.

“I’ve had 30-year-olds die and 80-year-olds die,” she said. “I’ve had patients with severe underlying issues survive and patients who are healthy and fit die. My greatest fear about the virus is that one of my family members might get it. That terrifies me.”

‘I ask God to sustain me and help me help these people,” said registered nurse Toni Woods, who has treated a number of coronavirus patients in ICU. (Courtesy Baptist Memorial Hospital)
‘I ask God to sustain me and help me help these people,” said registered nurse Toni Woods, who has treated a number of coronavirus patients in ICU. (Courtesy Baptist Memorial Hospital)

Angela Wilson, Woods’s mother, is a 61-year-old postal worker who suffers from an autoimmune disease. Her sister, Kimberly Woods Wilks, is a registered nurse certified in oncology and an assistant professor of nursing for Arkansas State.

“Both of my daughters watched me from a young age battling with my autoimmune disease and a job injury,” Wilson said. “I know that’s why they were driven toward health care. But you never want your children to go through what you’ve gone through.”

Wilson worries more about her daughters than about herself. She works from home, but she knows her daughters don’t have that option.

“I keep hoping Toni will find a reason not to go in to work, but I know she will go,” Wilson said. “She’s a tough cookie. She lets God guide her. Both of my girls are strong, God-fearing young women. That’s how I raised them. But I worry and pray every minute of every day.”

Woods prays right along with her. She prays with and for her patients and their families.

“I don’t ask God why,” Woods said. “I try not to. I really try not to question things. It’s all greater than me. Way bigger than me. I ask God to sustain me and help me help these people.”

Woods said her sister is scheduled to get her first dose of vaccine Thursday. She hopes her mother will get her first dose next month, if not sooner.

The hope provided by the vaccine is tempered by the doubts and fears of others. Some of her family members, friends, and colleagues don’t trust the vaccine. Some still don’t think the virus is real.

“There’s no doubt in my mind how real it is, but I try not to get into a battle about it,” Woods said. “It’s real. People are dying. The vaccine is effective. I don’t know what else to say.”

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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