May 28, 2020
Teresa Wilburn tuned to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s early announcements on the state’s coronavirus response with keen ear. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to fully take root in the United States, Wilburn, a group office administrator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, could feel her registered nurse instincts rising to the surface.
“Everything that was happening was just breaking my heart,” Wilburn said. “I talked to my supervisor, and to my kids, and said ‘What do you think if I volunteer?’”
When Hogan announced the opportunity to contact Maryland Responds — a state program designed to connect volunteers with opportunities in the fight against the virus — Wilburn took it as a sign to head right to the front line.
“I registered and gave all my credentials,” she said. “They accepted me within a few days.”
Wilburn is no stranger to unexpected forks in the road. Seven years ago, Wilburn would’ve told you she’d be enjoying retirement — from both careers — in West Virginia. Instead, she’s learned to adapt and to embrace what has wound up as her calling: helping others. While she was doing that, her colleagues and friends in APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector were encouraging her and offering practical assistance along the way.
At the end of April, Wilburn reported to a central Maryland hospital for the start of a three-week stint. The first day she worked with non-COVID-19 patients, and the second day she helped in the lab. On her third day, she was assigned to the emergency room, where she got her first intimate look at the effects of the virus. Three coronavirus patients in the hospital died that day, including a 30-year-old man with no underlying health conditions.
“This disease is so contagious, and it is so deadly,” Wilburn said. “When people say it’s not a big deal if you get it, or they shrug it off, that really bothers me. This is not like the flu. It’s not just people with compromised conditions who are getting it. Even people who are being careful are still getting it.”
The original expectation was for Wilburn to do three weeks of service at the hospital, but an unexpected influx of nurses who had lost their jobs elsewhere altered those plans. Wilburn was assigned to various COVID-19 testing sites for the remainder of her time, including some senior citizen centers, where she helped test staff members.
“We saw about 195 people a day,” Wilburn said, noting that the centers are highly organized. “Some required a doctor’s note and some didn’t, but the process was simple. You’re in all your garb testing as people come through. I wore my shield and two masks. It’s not difficult work, but it is tiring. You’re on your feet, your back hurts and you do start to feel emotionally drained. You begin to think: some of these people are really sick. Some of them are not going to make it.”
For Wilburn, who completed her volunteer shift and began a 14-day quarantine last week, the experience was an opportunity to utilize her skills, assist in her community and exemplify the type of community participation that many Lab staff members strive to accomplish.
Wilburn studied nursing before raising a family, and she went back to finish her degree when her youngest son graduated from high school. She worked as a nurse at Maryland’s Joint Base Andrews in internal medicine and also at a surgery center for many years before taking a break. That’s when a neighbor brought up working at APL.
The swap from nurse to executive administrator may sound odd to some, but for Wilburn, there is a natural connection. “I believe all admins have a helping heart,” she said. “We want to take care of people. So, it’s very much like nursing in my mind.”
Wilburn ended up working as a temp before accepting a full-time job in the Lab’s Asymmetric Operations Sector (AOS), where she worked for three years. “I loved it,” she said. “I love AOS and I really love my group.” Her husband wanted to retire to West Virginia, though, so she left the Lab. After a year away, during which Wilburn dealt with some serious health challenges, the couple returned to Maryland, but soon after Wilburn’s husband suffered a pulmonary embolism following routine shoulder surgery and died. He was 58.
Wilburn weighed whether to return to nursing, but friends at APL let her know that her old job was vacant again. “Everything kind of fell into place. I’ve been back since 2015, and I can’t say it enough: I love my group. They are so good to me,” she said.
Five years after her return, that same group immediately stepped up to support Wilburn when she announced her plan to volunteer her nursing services for three weeks. The group even mobilized to provide meals on the days Wilburn would be volunteering.
“We are so proud of Teresa!” said Kavita Braun. “I organized the meal train at the suggestion of group leadership after several people asked how we could support her bravery and selflessness.
“Teresa is always so good at taking care of us, and it was our turn to take care of her. Once we knew the dates she would be serving, I loaded everything into the meal train website and sent an email to the group with the details. Within minutes, people started signing up to provide her with dinner.”
Colleagues made two face shields for Wilburn to use during her service, and other administrators within the sector stepped in to help support Wilburn’s group during her time away. Wilburn was moved by the gestures, if somewhat uncomfortable with the attention.
“I’m boring!” she said with a laugh, downplaying her service. “We all think of what a difference we can make in life. I just immediately thought, ‘What can I do?’ I didn’t think I could live with myself if I knew I could’ve used my skills and didn’t do it. I don’t think anybody who has the skills for nursing could sit back.”
Maryland Responds’ program organizers hoped Wilburn could volunteer through the end of June, but she was ready to rest, quarantine and get back to her work at the Lab. She learned that AOS leaders had approved administrative leave for her time away, but Wilburn declined and used her vacation time instead, saying it didn’t feel like it “counted” otherwise.
“I really appreciate that the Lab gave me this opportunity,” she said. “I feel so blessed. It was a small thing I could do, and I am so glad I could do it.”
As the pandemic continues, and with the prospect of future spikes still to come, Wilburn said she’d consider volunteering again. She comes from a family of medical providers and has even passed that to the next generation; her son, Daniel, is a combat medic who’s been working in New York during COVID-19.
Nursing and medical care are just in her blood.
“I would do it again,” she said. “It’s just part of being a nurse. I have that gift of helping. I can’t sit back.”
Margaret Brown, 240-228-5692, Margaret.Brown@jhuapl.edu
Amanda Zrebiec, 240-592-2794, Amanda.Zrebiec@jhuapl.edu
The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.