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New London rally focuses on safety of health care workers, commemorates life of nurse's aide

New London — Elva Graveline’s name has become a rallying cry in southeastern Connecticut.

The 52-year-old nurse’s aide contracted COVID-19 and died earlier this month at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, the same place where she spent more than 23 years of her life caring for others.

Graveline’s image was depicted on numerous signs and T-shirts in the crowd that gathered for Saturday’s rally outside Harbor Elementary School. Graveline’s husband, two daughters and grandchildren were in attendance.

The rally, attended by more than 200 people, was organized by AFT unions representing nurses, health workers, technical professionals and home health aides employed by Yale-New Haven Health Systems. The union continues to raise concerns on behalf of employees about worker safety, hazard pay, a lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and the practice of reusing what supplies they do have.

National AFT President Randi Weingarten, one of the speakers at the rally, called Graveline’s memory a blessing and her death a “symbol and signal,” while calling for better support from the federal government in protecting and respecting health care professionals.

“We have a special obligation to those who every single day have stood up and gone to work to protect everyone else,” she said.

Martha Marx , vice president of AFT Local 5119 and a registered nurse with the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut, asked the crowd to get mad over conditions.

“What I want all of us to remember is this cannot be the new normal. We cannot say that putting an N95 mask in a paper bag in my trunk with a patient's name on it is OK,” Marx said. “We have to be angry. Every time we go to work and get the one mask until it's soiled. I should be throwing that mask away and the next time I see that patient, have a new mask.”

Marx said the only time she or other nurses and home health aides get a new N95 mask is when they are assigned a new COVID-19 patient. The N95 mask is supposed to be reused until that patient is discharged or off of PPE protocols that require the mask.

Patrick Green, L+M’s president and chief executive officer, issued a statement earlier this week in response to union concerns that reads, in part: “Our staff have not been without PPE during this pandemic, period.”

“This is difficult work and highly stressful for our staff and they are doing a phenomenal job. Our people are true heroes, especially those who are providing direct care to the COVID-19 patients. They inspire us all and we value and respect them too much to not provide the protective gear needed in this battle,” he said in the statement.

Along with health care employees, the rally attracted local and state leaders that included Gov. Ned Lamont, state Sen. Cathy Osten, New London Mayor Michael Passero and a variety of state representatives, some of whom called for more production of PPE in the U.S. and less reliance on China.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, in a call for pay equity, said, “we need to show our respect to our health care workers by valuing what they give. And let’s be honest, most of them are women.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney said that, as he drives across the state, he is heartened by the “Thank You” signs that have cropped up in honor of essential workers.

“Saying thank you is a good thing. Its kind-hearted. It’s empathetic. It’s thoughtful. But saying thank you is not enough. We also must act as a nation to ensure the folks we are thanking are protected to the greatest extent possible,” he said.

Courtney testified this week at an Education and Labor Committee hearing about the need for updated protections for health care workers during the pandemic. The House earlier this month passed what is known as the HEROES Act, a wide-ranging Democratic proposal that would provide another $3 trillion in coronavirus relief. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill.

Part of the bill, Courtney said, creates a HEROES Fund that includes hazard pay for essential workers and also a mandate that the federal Occupational and Safety and Health Administration implement an “emergency, enforceable standard for airborne pathogens.” He said the OSHA standards are desperately needed to ensure “the people going to work every day and caring for America are protected.” OSHA instituted similar emergency standards for bloodborne pathogens during the AIDS /HIV pandemic in the mid-1980s, early '90s, he said.

Courtney called Graveline the human face of the dangers caregivers are facing on a daily basis.

“Her work as a CNA was not a job it was a calling and we’re all better for it,” he said. "We must make sure that her example and her memory is not forgotten at this moment, in fact we raise it up as inspiration to all of us.”

Daughter Felicia Graveline said her goal was to follow in her mother’s footsteps in the health care field, “an honorable job,” that she said her mother loved.

Daughter Shelly Crews, in an email, called her mother “kind, nurturing, always smiling.”

“She cared more about other people than she cared about herself. She would help anyone who needed it. My mom loved her family, near or far, especially her granddaughters,” Crews said. “They were the light of her life. She was the best grandmother a grandchild could ever ask for. She doted on them. My mother was amazing, as a mother, a wife, a grandma, a sister, a friend. Everyone loved her.” 

Watching the day’s speeches from the side of a mobile stage was Graveline’s husband, Michael.

Looking out over the crowd, he said he was proud his wife’s life had such a deep impact on the lives of others. He reminisced about her daily routine that included her rise from bed at 4 a.m. to “get done what she needed to do” before going to work to find a good parking spot and going into the hospital well before her shift was to start.

His wife was working directly with COVID-19 patients.

“It was dedication. It was dedication to work and I always teased her about it. ‘When it comes to home, you’re not a perfectionist,’ I’d tell her, 'but when it comes to work and your patients, you have a dedication to them,'” he said.

“And the smiles. She was always smiling. If she was upset, you’d know it. But the next day, smiles again,” he said.

Michael Graveline said his wife’s concerns about COVID-19 always centered on the patients and not herself.

“Her concern was 'These people were dying on my floor with no one.' I said, ‘Well, they do have someone. They have you. You are their family,’” he said. “She did everything she could possibly do for them.”

g.smith@theday.com

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