Yes, I have four kids and a busy life as a nurse-practitioner, but when I saw a chance to care for those who needed it most, I couldn’t say no.

By Dakoyoia Billie, as told to Jessica Hartshorn
July 10, 2020
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“Elijah [on shoulders] would ask if I’d come home when I was done saving lives,” says DaKoyoia, here with the whole family.
| Credit: Courtesy of DaKoyoia family

“If you feel you can make a difference, then you should go.” That’s what my husband, Marcus, told me when the City of New York issued a call for health-care workers early in the coronavirus crisis. We live in Atlanta with our sons Jaylen, 16, and Elijah, 4, and twin babies, a boy named Karrington and a girl named Kinsley. The twins were born at just 29 weeks in December and came home from the NICU in early March. I read the emergency request at the end of that month.

I’m a nurse-practitioner, and this was a call to practice what’s known as the art and heart of nursing. Plus, leaving would protect my family. My hospital in Atlanta had a few COVID patients, and if I stayed, bringing whatever I came in contact with home, I would put the kids at risk. The dangerous work also paid well, as it should. Krucial Staffing recruited on a Facebook group called Family Nurse Practitioner Networking. They accepted my application on a Tuesday, and I was on a plane that Friday.

The beginning was tough. Really tough. I learned to compartmentalize by concentrating on the fact that the work was temporary. I’d tell myself: “I’m here to help, and when it’s all said and done, I’ll be a part of history, and I can go back to my family.”

I was placed in a 14-bed unit normally used for patients with chronic conditions but which became a COVID unit. Two of us worked at a time, so I had seven patients to attend to from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I worked 21 days straight. Then I took two days off. Then I worked 28 more.

Before we got there, the overwhelmed staff had no time to update the patients’ families. When I’d reach out, they’d say, “Thank you, this is the first news we’ve heard.” That was usually after they asked if their loved one was on a ventilator. Patients in my unit were on supplemental oxygen at most, so it was a comfort for them to hear that. I could set up Zoom calls between patients and their families, which made a world of difference. During my time, two patients did go into respiratory distress and were immediately moved to the ICU.

I always had protective equipment and a new N95 mask every day. Each evening, I left my shoes outside my hotel-room door and sprayed everything I wore with Lysol. I’d shower and then FaceTime with Marcus and the kids. Seeing their luscious cheeks and hearing their voices helped me push on. My 4-year-old, Elijah, would ask if I’d come home when I was done saving lives, and I assured him that I’d be home as soon as I could. He was happy with that answer as long as he could admire my stethoscope. Marcus was nothing but supportive, and I tried to be sure he had everything he needed to get his own real-estate work done from home, including help from my grandmother and two part-time caregivers.

One way I could contribute was mailing breast milk home. Every three to four hours, day and night, I pumped. In front of coworkers I’d cover up and say, “Don’t mind me, I’ll sit in the corner, you don’t have to leave the room.” I kept the milk in a cooler, and each Friday, I mailed it home on my lunch break. It wasn’t cheap, but it had to be done.

Slowly, things in New York shifted. In early April, I’d hear “code 777 gold” ten times a day, which meant a COVID patient elsewhere in the hospital was in cardiac arrest or not breathing. By the time I left, on May 20, there was maybe one a day. I took a break through June to be with my family. Then on the Fourth of July I got called to go work in San Antonio, Texas, so that is where I am helping now.

During this work, I’ve made friends with people of all backgrounds, all of whom put aside differences and came together. Who knows? It may be Atlanta that needs help next time, or maybe some other city. Whatever happens, I’ll be ready and willing to do the same thing.

In tribute to DaKoyoia’s amazing work, Parents gave to Graham’s Foundation (which supports parents of preemies) in her name. The breast-milk shipping company Milk Stork paid to mail her milk home the month she returned to NYC.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2020 issue as “'I'm Here to Help'” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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