On Mothers’ Day, the children of nurses lost to Covid-19 reflect on love, grief, the fight for change
Losing even one registered nurse impacts countless lives. Losing more than 400 of them to Covid-19 — many of them mothers, in our women-dominated profession — changes families and communities across the country forever. This Mother’s Day, the children of three RN mothers who died of Covid-19 are looking back at their moms’ incredible contributions to the world, and speaking out for nurse protections so no more families have to stand in their shoes.
“One is too many”
Rebecca Gbodi and her mother Helen, a registered nurse in the ICU at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C, were always connected, even when they were apart.
“I would literally call her 20 times a day,” said Rebecca. “Some of my favorite moments were the conversations we would have, whether it was deep or just joking.”
On a mother-daughter call in the spring of 2020, as a new virus spread through their community, Helen asked for the phone number of Rebecca’s friend, so she could talk to her parents. It turned out Helen was taking the time to call every single person she knew, to check up on them and make sure they had advice from a registered nurse to take this new virus seriously. In a world that can often seem uncaring, Helen embodied the way things could be. “No matter what, she would help,” said Rebecca.
Helen Gbodi died of Covid-19 on April 19, 2020, at the same hospital where she had worked for 16 years. This Mother’s Day weekend, Rebecca and her sisters Ranti, 28 and Angel, 12, will gather with family and friends to hold a memorial for their mom. It’s a “double celebration,” with simultaneous gatherings in the United States and in Nigeria, where her mother was raised.
Helen was already a registered nurse when she immigrated to the United States in 1998 and settled in Washington, D.C with her eldest, Ranti. In addition to caring for her daughters and working full time, Helen ran the church food bank, headed up the church health department, and helped care for her granddaughters, Naliyah and Neveah.
“After she passed, I got to hear about all the good she has done for people,” said Rebecca, reflecting on the time her mother, who had her own bills, helped a family member pay off their student loans. She was the kind of person who would take a community member to the grocery store and appointments, “just to make sure they were okay.” Rebecca said it breaks her heart to know that when Covid struck, the hospital did not make sure her mother was cared for, in return.
“I remember FaceTiming her one day, and she just looked so upset. I think she only had a [surgical] mask and gloves and not the shield or anything. She was so upset that they were not protecting nurses,” she said.
“These nurses are putting their lives on the line to help save other people’s lives. Protecting them is not something that should be negotiated. You shouldn’t have to fight for things like that,” said Rebecca. “People are still dying — one is too many.”
To honor her mother, Rebecca said she “thanks God every day” she had the opportunity to grow up with such a special person — and she continues to push herself. Her mother valued education and wanted the very best for her kids, so she has kept up with her psychology and computer science courses, as well as taking classes to become a pilot. She hopes other children of nurses who lost their lives to Covid are finding the strength to keep going, fueled by memories of their mother.
“It’s important to still cherish who they were, what they gave you, how they guided you, and it’s okay to have bad days because they are bound to happen,” said Rebecca. “Just remember to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward.”
“Our moms are heroes”
Regina Yumang would go to the mall with her friends and come home with clothes that her son Kenneth, 19, hadn’t even asked her to buy. She was just that generous.
“My mom was a very loving mom. I’m an only child, and when I was growing up, she always gave her full attention to me,” said Kenneth, a college student studying accounting and finance. “She was the best mom I could have ever asked for.”
Regina worked as a nurse for several years in the Philippines, where she grew up. In 1986, she pursued her dream of coming to the United States, landing in the New York City area and meeting her husband, Dennis. When Covid struck, she was caring for patients in the ICU at the Manhattan VA, where she had worked since 1993.
Kenneth said his mom absolutely loved being a nurse. But when he picked her up from work during the initial months of Covid, it was obvious the pandemic was taking a toll.
“She always felt so depressed. In the first wave in March, in the ICU, all the Covid patients passed away,” he said. “She always felt so sad for those people who passed in the first wave because they had no family to be with them.”
Although they were concerned about the virus, Kennth said as the months passed, his family began to worry less about his mother catching it. Then there was the second wave.
Regina Yumang was hospitalized with Covid on Dec. 17. Kenneth’s father Dennis also became ill and landed in the hospital on Dec. 19, passing away just three days later. Regina died on Jan. 17, 2021 at the age of 62.
“In our faith, we would say, the Lord takes the good people away early,” said Kenneth, who now lives at his uncle’s home, and who has coped with the loss of both parents through his Catholic faith and by being around family. This Mother’s Day, he will place chocolate and flowers near his mother’s urn to let her know how much he loves her and how proud he is that she fought to save so many lives. He hopes anyone else who lost an RN mom to Covid feels the same.
“Our moms are heroes, and they did everything they could to save more people. They thought of others before themselves,” said Kenneth, who believes nurses deserve strong protections. “Our mothers will always be with us, watching over us.”
“The reason we are here today”
“I would do anything and everything to bring back mom for five minutes,” said Jhulan Banago, 29. “We can’t do that and change anything, but moving forward, you have to be pretty damn proud of a parent who lost the fight to Covid because they were helping treat patients with Covid.”
Jhulan’s mother Celia Yap-Banago died of Covid-19 on April 21, 2020 — just short of her 40th work anniversary as a registered nurse at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. Now, Jhulan, his brother Josh, and his father Amado, take a short drive from their home to the nearby cemetery every weekend with flowers and Yap-Banago’s favorite snack: chips and a coke. They’ll do the same on Mother’s Day, followed by a barbecue with cousins, who are also nurses.
“We still set out a plate [for her] any time we eat, because we want her to know we are still thinking of her,” said Jhulan. “She is still very, very loved.”
“Everyone always says we wouldn’t be where we are today without certain people. In regards to my family, the reason why we are here today is because of mom,” said Jhulan, citing his mom’s hard work, getting her education, and becoming the first in her family to move from the Philippines to the United States. Other family members followed, and she helped every step of the way.
“She opened the doors to my cousins no questions asked, took them under her roof, under her wing. It was definitely ‘others first’ with mom,” said Jhulan, noting that even when his mother was sick with Covid, she talked about going back to work.
Yap-Banago and her colleagues demanded optimal PPE in the earliest days of the pandemic. Instead, Research Medical Center, owned by the extremely wealthy HCA Healthcare corporate hospital chain, locked up and rationed N95 respirators. More than a year after her death, her fellow nurses are still fighting for even basic protections, as her colleague Pascaline Muhindura testified to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in March.
“I say this as someone who lost their mom: Everyone working with patients and people with Covid should have the proper PPE to do their job safely,” said Jhulan, who still keeps in touch with his mother’s coworkers. They even met for a socially distant lunch on the anniversary of her death. While his mother never wanted the spotlight, he thinks she would be proud to know that her story has been shared widely, all the way to Congress, in support of protections that could save her colleagues’ lives.
“The more her story gets out, the more it should hopefully give people the courage to fight for what they think is right. I hope no more 29-year-olds have to go through what I did. I hope no more families have to go through what we did,” said Jhulan. “Mom is a hero — she has always been mine.”