Grace in her scrubs during a shift at Tacoma General.
Grace Mbuthia, originally from Kenya, submitted her story of how she is caring for her community during COVID-19 as a part of our “Time to Fly” campaign with HOKA ONE ONE in August. Due to Covid-19 and travel restrictions, Grace has been separated from her husband who currently lives and works in South Africa. She has been living with her brother, and continuing her work as a nurse in the cardiac cath lab at Tacoma General Hospital. She is witness to the anxiety of her patients and her community, both near and far. In our interview with her, she tells us how she still continues to hope (hint: she spends a lot of time in the kitchen).
We hope that her words inspire you to keep moving and check in with a neighbor or friend this week. Don't let the smoke stop you from caring for yourself, and being good to others!
Tell us your running story. What do you do for running, and what does your running practice look like right now?
You know, I have struggled with running. However, it’s something I want to be better at. But it’s something I struggle with up here [in my head]. I have to get out of my head…and my knees are not great. However, my brother is in the army and told me, “Grace, it’s all a mental game…if you can’t see yourself running just a mile, how can you run further than that?" And my husband [whose work involves cardiovascular health] keeps telling me, "Do it, at least for your heart!”
So, you have people in your life telling you to move.
Yes, and I move in other ways! For me, I decided running might not be the only thing, but I can jump rope, walk, and hike. Incorporating running into that has been my goal…my goal is to maintain cardiovascular health.
And the reason I really like HOKA shoes is that they are very stable. So, good shoes and a good schedule. I force myself to go on a walk, even if it’s after work, even if I’m dead tired.
Tell me more now that we’re talking about work. What does your work look like, working at Tacoma General and taking it upon yourself to check in with people on their mental health?
My days, especially lately, have been long. I work in a cardiac cath lab, it’s where we do all the emergencies around [cardiac health]. It’s a high stress area. Anyways, it’s a lot of moving around and a lot of long procedures. It’s work I enjoy doing, but it’s hard, especially mentally.
Now that people are coming back to their appointments and procedures [after lockdown], they are coming to the hospital with such anxiety. I mean, it’s through the roof. [Most of the people I work with] are having high risk procedures and on top of that they are stressed about coming to the hospital with all the fear around COVID. I take it upon myself to reassure them that they are coming to a place where all the precautions have been considered. What I’ve noted with the anxiety is that it has just gone up. Life has gotten harder, people have lost jobs and family members. I have seen depression, anxiety, and restlessness.
It’s easy to take that onto yourself and carry other people’s burdens. I remind myself that I have to be healthy mentally to be able to take care of other people who are coming in with mental as well as physical issues.
I started to call my friends and really started asking them, “How are you doing? Like, really, how are you? Don’t tell me you’re doing good if you’re not good.” At work, I started checking in with my co-workers and seeing what they needed.
Community health has always been my heart; I’m very passionate about it and I partner with organizations that offer this type of help, or start my own.
I’m from Kenya, and COVID has hit Kenya in a totally different way…a lot of people are actually suffering from the consequences of the protocols and restrictions put in place. People are starving because they cannot go to work to earn a living to provide food for their families. Most people are reliant on their daily income.
My brother and I started a project where one can adopt a family to feed in Kenya. We created a website where people can donate money to buy food for a week or a month for any of the families. My parents identify families in the poorer communities, and when a family is sponsored, my father buys the food and it’s delivered to them.
I also work with a [well-established] organization in the Congo, the DRC, that I’ve worked with for over ten years called Mwangaza International. Right now in the DRC, they are dealing with people dying of starvation. There has also been an outbreak of Cholera, Ebola, and malaria. COVID isn’t even the main issue. Some people are relying on one meal a day, and if it doesn’t get delivered to them, they starve. As an organization, one of our projects now is to coordinate food deliveries to different parts of the communities that we serve.
In Tacoma, we are making sure our friends and neighbors are doing okay. We are really asking people how they are doing. We also have to extend grace to other people. It has brought me peace to know that everyone is going through COVID; it’s affecting everyone to different degrees, some more than others.
Food deliveries in the DRC with Mwangaza International
When you approach people with that authenticity, how do they respond to that?
I have people pause and say, “you know, it has been a rough day, but thank you for asking.” I think people just want to be acknowledged. They want someone to see them, or listen. It’s not a matter of solving their problems, it’s just being present in their situation. I have found people are receptive to that. At the hospital, when I go to pick up my patients before a procedure, I ask them, “How can we as an organization help you handle this better? Do you need mental health services? Do you need a priest?” I’ve had patients who have lost loved ones to COVID and are literally suffering from a broken heart. They have so much heartache that they have symptoms of a heart attack. They come in with such brokenness. As healthcare providers, we sometimes forget people are people and we aren’t just treating their physical body. I try to remind myself that the person I’m helping probably doesn’t want to be here in the first place and might be going through something I don’t know about. It’s easy to pre-judge people. If you see a non-compliant patient, it’s easy to pre-judge someone. One time I caught myself and asked myself what might be the cause. You just have to ask. If you don’t ask, you assume. I have learned to listen, and not assume.
We have an opportunity to start seeing people holistically right now. They have a family, friends, and they may or may not have a job. I think that’s where we need to stay. Healthcare in America has to change for the better toward a holistic approach.
There are patients who have had COVID, have recovered from it, but have ongoing issues from it. And there’s a stigma attached to people who have had it, and they think people are going to treat them differently because they’ve had COVID, now that it’s on their medical chart. It’s so hard to see that mentality, “oh I’m just going to get a different treatment because I had COVID.” That’s not true – you don’t get “less than” treatment because you’ve had or have COVID. COVID has given people a fear and low self-esteem.
In all of this, how are you taking care of yourself?
I am a big believer in taking care of yourself first. If you aren’t handling your own health first, you’re not going to be able to serve others in the best way possible. So I love to cook, and to eat [laughs]. I cook a lot, that’s like my therapy session. If you see me in the kitchen, just know I’m going through therapy.
I grew up cooking with my mom so I don’t follow recipes. I just make it up on the spot. Those are my favorites. I make something up with what’s in the fridge. My go-to comfort food is French fries. Lord, help me! I make them, but sometimes I just go to Chick-Fil-A and get their fries, too.
Of course, I go outside and take long hikes or walks or even in my room, I do YouTube HIIT workouts. Chambers Bay has been my spot for a while. Something about the water calms me.
I believe in God, so I pray, too. For me, that’s my number one. My peace comes from God. Without that, I’d be a mess.
If I’m really in my feelings about something, I’ll call my mom or my husband, and my sister gets a lot of it. I am so grateful to have a great support system. It’s important to have a good support system. All of us will crumble at some point. If you don’t have people to lift you up and mold you back together, it’s going to be hard. I am blessed and privileged to have a great support system.
If you’re interested in learning more about the organizations Grace supports, you can find them here:
Unspoken Love (started by Grace and her brother): https://www.unspokenlove.org/
Mwangaza International: https://mwangazaint.org/getinvolved/give/food-packages