Each workday morning, Debbie Johns drives her 23-year-old Ford Probe a little more than two miles from her lifelong Mount Airy home to Chestnut Hill Hospital, where she clocks in for her 7 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. shift. On the cobblestone sidewalk outside the hospital, scrawled in pastel-colored chalk, are the words: “Because of You, We Have Hope." At the entrance, there’s a big, hand-painted wooden sign in blue, dug deep into the grass:
“Heroes Work Here.”
Johns, 53, smiles to herself. No, she’s not a doctor or a nurse struggling around the clock, desperately and tirelessly, trying to save lives from the deadly coronavirus. But she’s in this war.
“We’re a part of it,” she said.
As hospital housekeepers, Johns and her cleaning partner, Liz Mitchell, are trying to stop the spread of the virus, pick up the pieces, and prep each room for the next scared patient.
“You never know what you’re going to walk into,” said Mitchell, 64. "Ever.”
As soon as Johns and Mitchell arrive, they suit up in the same protective gear as the nurses: an N95 mask and eye goggles, a blue gown, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of footies, and a hairnet. They stock their carts with bleach, anti-bacterial spray cleaners, washcloths, linens, toilet paper, tissues, microfiber mops, and wipes, then head up to the fifth floor. This used to be designated for heart patients. Now it’s for those battling the coronavirus. Some have tested positive. Others are awaiting results.
“Here they come! The A-team!” is the way the nurses always greet them, Johns said. “It’s like we’re a family. And that helps, especially in times like these.”
“They include us in everything,” Mitchell said. “They make us feel like we’re part of the front line.”
One morning in early April, there was no doubt.
Mitchell and Johns arrived on the floor with all their cleaning supplies. The mood was particularly somber. The women could see that the nurses, even behind goggles and masks, were distraught. “They were all crying,” Mitchell said. They soon learned a woman in her early 60s had died overnight.
“It was someone younger than me,” Mitchell said.
Less than a half-hour later, another patient succumbed. Before Mitchell and Johns could catch their breath, loud alarms sounded. Doctors and nurses were frantic, sprinting into another room. The patient was whisked off to the intensive care unit.
“Two people died back to back on the same morning. And another goes to the ICU," Mitchell said.
“It was a wake-up call about just how bad this coronavirus is,” she said. “It was a reality check for all of us, how hard it is.”
“Everyone feels the pain,” Johns said. “The scary part is, you can’t tell who will get better and who won’t.”
Whether a patient has died, been discharged, or transferred, Mitchell and Johns wait at least an hour to enter the room and clean. The nurses bag the trash, and Mitchell and Johns take the bags, doubled in plastic, to what they call the biohazard dirty utility room. Then they set about to spray, scrub, wipe, and mop every surface and change the linens.
When they opened the door to the room where the first patient died, Mitchell and Johns were stunned. “You could see how the medical staff worked to save the patient. There were gowns, tubes, tubing, equipment, things were everywhere,” Mitchell said.
“We cleaned it all up, but it was hard,” she said.
“But having things clean and sanitized is so very important,” Johns said.
In pre-coronavirus days, patients often had relatives and friends at their side when Mitchell and Johns came to clean. Now, there is no one.
“Some patients are asleep or not able to communicate," Johns said. “But some can talk. I always say, ‘Hi, hang in there.’ I try to keep it light, talk about the weather. But I do tell them I’m praying for them.
“The patients are wonderful," she added. “They keep you going. That’s why I get up and do what I do. It’s not for the pay. It’s all about the patients.... Their loved ones can’t be there with them. But I can be there.”
On one recent morning, Mitchell entered the room of an elderly patient who was feeling better and looking forward to finishing the job she had left — cleaning out her drawers at home.
“She was weak, but so happy,” Mitchell said.
Hospital housekeepers acknowledge they’re frightened they could contract the virus. “I’m very scared,” said Ruby Johnson, who works on the fourth floor at Chestnut Hill Hospital. “I’m cautious. I don’t want to catch it. I don’t want to bring it home to my family.” Every day, Johnson, who has high blood pressure, takes two buses and a subway home to her husband and grown son in North Philadelphia.
“I still don’t feel safe, even though I’m geared up,” she said. “After I get out of a room, I can’t take my clothes off and shower. I stay in the same uniform.... I try not to think about it. I give it to God and pray on it and hope it doesn’t come my way."
Jesse Wilderman, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, calls housekeepers like Mitchell, Johns, and Johnson “unsung heroes in this battle we’re fighting.”
“Too many [environmental service] workers are just scraping by, working for poverty wages and relying on public assistance to put food on the table for their families,” he said. “Yet they show up every day, putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure patients can get safe care.”
When they get home, Mitchell, Johns, and Johnson take off their uniform of black pants and a gray top and immediately throw them in the washer before they see their families or eat dinner. Their work shoes never make it inside.
They try to rest and prepare for the next day. “We just never know what’s going to happen,” Johns said.
“Sometimes it really does feel like a war.”