As she stood to introduce the vice president of the United States, a year’s worth of pandemic-related emotions — trauma, stress and, finally, relief — seemed to overtake registered nurse Melissa Wesby of Baltimore.
“I work with pulmonary and cardiac patients at Johns Hopkins Bayview,” Wesby said Thursday from a lectern at M&T Bank Stadium’s mass vaccination site, where Vice President Kamala Harris was about to address a group of elected officials and other VIPs.
“We care for patients,” Wesby said, then paused, held her hand to heart and exhaled. “We care for patients who are currently COVID-positive,” the Patterson Park resident continued.
After some more deep breaths and nervous smiles, Wesby thanked President Joe Biden’s administration for combating COVID-19 and finished with: “It is my honor to introduce Vice President Kamala Harris.”
Wesby, 42, said later that her speech — and a whole surreal day in which Harris, a Democrat, sought her out to thank and comfort her — seemed a turning point in a trying year in which she endured seeing countless coronavirus patients suffer alone. Among her tasks has been making sure patients are equipped with iPads to conduct Zoom sessions with family members while they are hospitalized.
Reliving her experiences in public — and in front of Harris, whom she admires — proved a challenge all its own.
Wesby, a breast cancer survivor and a married mother of three kids ages 8, 10 and 12, was unexpectedly contacted recently by the vice president’s office and asked whether she would introduce Harris during her tour of the site. Wesby was featured last year in a Baltimore Sun photo essay and “they could have Googled me,” she said.
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After Wesby’s introduction, Harris told the audience, which was assembled in a stadium concourse, that the nurse was an example of how “heroes among us” rise to the occasion during a crisis.
“I never, ever considered myself a hero. This is my job,” Wesby said in an interview. “People coming to me and telling me, ‘Great job’ was so odd, but beautiful. I think about my colleagues still, in the thick of it. This could have been them, just the same.”
It was a moment before her remarks that will stay with Wesby. The nurse said she was waiting anxiously in a holding area when the vice president spotted her and approached.
“I was very, very nervous,” Wesby said. “I was trembling. She could see I was nervous and she wanted to comfort me. It is kind of a blur, but she was just like a girlfriend saying, ‘Speak from the heart. Tell your story. Don’t think too much about it.’“
Her year has been so difficult, Wesby said, that “for the first time — I’m actually saying this out loud — I looked to talk to someone outside of my family. A counselor. Hopkins actually offered it. This has all affected me and probably will affect me [in the future].”
But Wesby said the pandemic seems to be slowly easing. And, she said, she won’t forget how a terrible year ended with an unexpected exchange with the vice president.
“One of the best days of my life,” Wesby said.