Rachel always knew she wanted to be a nurse. As a kid, she’d walk around in her mom’s scrubs and heart-shaped stethoscope, eager to follow in her footsteps. And she did.

Her nursing career began almost 10 years ago in the fast-paced world of emergency rooms and trauma care, taking her up the east coast to places like Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. But she found her home at Tyson Foods.

“What I love most is seeing the same faces every day,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to have that family. You don’t get that in an ER.”

Rachel started with Tyson Foods in January 2020, just before the pandemic hit. I sat down with her to talk about her experience with COVID-19 and what the last year and half has meant for her.

“How is this happening?”

Her whole life, Rachel was a runner. She ran five miles a day, every day, and she loved it. She had no medical history or issues. Not even allergies. She was 34 and athletic and healthy.

She woke up the day after Easter 2020 with a 104.2 fever and couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t eat and had a headache so severe, she was sure she had a brain bleed. She’d lost her sense of taste and smell. She checked her pulse oximeter level – the percentage of oxygen in your blood – and it was in the 80s. A normal reading is over 95%.

She drove herself to the ER. “I was thinking, ‘I’m young, I’m 34. I’m healthy. How is this happening?’” She thought of her children, of Grayson. She was anxious and scared and felt like she was going to die. And, like most COVID-19 patients, she was alone.

“I felt scared for my life, truly scared, and scared for my son,” she said. “It was the worst weeks of my life.”

You see, Rachel’s youngest son, Grayson, was diagnosed with a laryngeal cleft, a hole in the larynx (the voice box), meaning every time he ate or drank, food and liquid got into his lungs. 

“Especially as a nurse it’s even scarier,” Rachel said. “Unfortunately, we know all those bad outcomes, we know what the worst could be.”

At one point, it looked like the worst would happen. “You don’t ever think you’re going to see your child on a medivac alone, flying to a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU),” she said. “You don’t ever think you’re going see your get child intubated or need surgery.”

Grayson recovered, but his immunities are weaker. He gets sick quickly and is especially susceptible to respiratory illnesses – like COVID-19.

“I was absolutely petrified,” Rachel said. “I was petrified that we would lose him.”

It took her three weeks to begin to recover from COVID-19. She lost 15 pounds and can no longer run at all, immediately getting out of breath if she tries. Luckily, Grayson didn’t get sick, and as soon as she was able, she got vaccinated.

“Once I got that second shot, it was a celebration.”

“What’s your why?”

When the vaccine became available, Rachel made it her mission – both as a nurse and as a mom – to get her community protected.

“Every single person at my [Tyson Foods] complex matters to me. If that meant I was going to have 1,205 conversations, then that’s what that meant,” she said. “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate.”  

She had one-on-one meetings with team members, scheduled small group discussions, and reached out to local health centers for information and educational materials. Her facility was one of the first to collaborate with our partner, Matrix Medical, in a vaccine clinic.

If a team member had a question, she found them an answer. If a team member had a concern, she listened. If there was a barrier between someone and a vaccine, she overcame it. In total, she’s helped get over 1,000 team members vaccinated.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to wake up every day and hug my children again. That’s my why,” Rachel would say in her conversations. “What’s your why? If you figure that out, then getting a vaccine is the easiest decision in the world.”

And when we announced we’d soon require all Tyson Foods team members be vaccinated against COVID-19, she was proud and relieved and grateful.

“It takes a lot of courage, a ton, to say, ‘You know what, we appreciate our team members so much to the point where we want everybody to be healthy and safe,’” Rachel said. “I’ve never been prouder to work for Tyson.”