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Our Pandemic Year: Kansas City Reflects on COVID-19 Kansas Citians Share How Their Lives Have Changed

Photo illustration of Kansas Citians reflecting on the past year of life during a pandemic. Photo illustration of Kansas Citians reflecting on the past year of life during a pandemic. (The Beacon)
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12 minute read

Outbreak. Epidemic. Pandemic. 

Then came the panic buying, the shutdowns and holding our collective breath, waiting for the surge in the Midwest. 

About this Story

The Beacon, a nonprofit media partner with Kansas City PBS, is collecting the first-person stories of Kansas Citians reflecting on how their lives have changed during a year of pandemic. You can find more vignettes like these by going to The Beacon. You can also contribute your story here.

But the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t — and didn’t — keep everyone in Kansas City inside. Not during a summer marked by mass protests against police violence. And especially not during a high-stakes presidential election.

For some, the past year has been an opportunity to pause and reflect. For others, it has been a time for survival and change. 

The pandemic has brought a new vocabulary to our world: Shelter in place. Flatten the curve. Social distancing. PPE. Superspreader. Quarantine. N95. Contact tracing. Antibodies. And finally — vaccine. 

It has also been a year of sobering statistics. Over 117 million confirmed cases worldwide; 2.6 million deaths; 114 million jobs lost. 

But those aren’t just numbers. They’re people. As we reach the one-year milestone of living in the pandemic, we asked fellow Kansas Citians to reflect on how their lives have changed. From nurses on the frontline to students whose schooling was disrupted to those who lost loved ones to the virus. Some are first-person accounts. Others were interviewed by Beacon reporters.

Deborah Maxwell: ‘I still have faith’

Every day driving to work during the pandemic, Deborah Maxwell thought it might be the last.

“I felt like I was going to die, if I’m going to be serious. I felt like this was the end.”

Deborah Maxwell.

Maxwell, 55, is a travel nurse who usually works in California during the winter, and spends the rest of the year at home in Kansas City. Her daughter wanted her to stay in Kansas City during the pandemic, but she didn’t feel like she could quit her job in California, where the pandemic was hitting harder, and she was needed most. 

Maxwell came back to Kansas City just once, in April, for her daughter’s birthday, which she has never missed. She was able to fly with documents from her employer stating she was an essential employee.

“So I came home, but I still couldn’t be with her. She came and waved at me from the driveway. I was crying because that’s my first time not being around my baby.”

Maxwell’s job in Kansas City reached out to her and asked when she would return. They told her so much time passed, she would have to reapply.

“I was a little disappointed. But what can you do? In a way, you’re kind of trapped.”

For Maxwell, at the beginning, the pandemic seemed never-ending. She found herself constantly praying for her patients, even on her days off. Sometimes she came back to work and found that patients had died while she was gone.

“There were just so many deaths. Probably as many as through my whole career. It takes a lot of prayer to keep you going.”

That faith has made her stronger, she said.

“I’ve seen God at work, bigger than ever, even though a lot of my patients, especially the initial ones I was praying for, didn’t make it. I still have faith.”

While Maxwell is continuing the same work, and the pandemic is still ongoing, she said she doesn’t feel the same sadness she did at the start of the pandemic. She says getting the vaccine hasn’t made her feel any different.

“I still have to wear a mask. I still have to protect myself.”

Marty Hillard: ‘More than statistics’

I am a longtime musician living in Topeka, Kansas. My last live performance was in Kansas City on Saturday, March 7, 2020, at Mills Record Company. My band, EBONY TUSKS, just completed a short run of regional dates in support of a new single that we released on vinyl. It felt triumphant to not only release new music to our community, but to also support LGBTQIA+ nonprofits along the way. 

Marty Hillard

We were concurrently learning new information about COVID-19 from the news every day. I began to worry if our having live concerts at its advent was irresponsible and if it would result in members of our community falling ill. It’s our intent to partner with venues and organizations that are committed to creating safe, accessible spaces. Thankfully, we were not alerted to any issues that could have arisen.

Unfortunately, members of my family and I contracted COVID-19 around (a decidedly solitary) Thanksgiving of 2020. This was after months of carefully navigating our home and city, every trip to the store including face masks and hand sanitizer in and out. I was stricken by how resentful I was, that both my wife and parents and daughter’s godmother had to endure these debilitating symptoms despite our caution and distance from our loved ones. 

There was so much uncertainty about how we could safely care for one another without getting anyone else sick. The aches, the shallow breathing and the fatigue were prolonged. I felt better eight to nine days after my symptoms appeared and thought I could push it. I was in bed for all of the following day.

It’s been enraging to see others carry on as if COVID-19 were not a once-in-a-century affliction, as if keeping others safe from this is a bridge too far. I’ve been alarmed by but not surprised at our local and state governance’s open skepticism of the science behind our health department’s communications, despite nearly 4,800 Kansans dying from COVID-19. People amount to more than statistics on a line chart and should be treated as such. 

My bandmate Daniel B. Smith said this about the vaccine rollout and I think it’s reflective of America’s complete approach to COVID-19 so far: “They aren’t vaccinating people, they’re vaccinating the economy.” This has ultimately changed how I treat every remaining day I have in this life, how I choose to spend my time, and who I desire to spend it with.

Rev. Eric Williams: ‘The pain in the valley’

Rev. Eric Williams’ congregation was already displaced when COVID-19 hit. Their church burned down in March of 2019, and since then they had worshipped at a wellness center. The pandemic meant no gatherings.

Rev. Eric Williams

“So I said, let’s use the space. My running joke is that when we started our food distribution, we had two cans of Spam and some macaroni with no cheese.”

After starting a food distribution center, the congregation got access to the Harvesters food bank.

“We’ve probably given away 90,000 pounds of food over these last few months. It’s an incredibly warm sense to know that you helped, and to see gratitude on people’s faces.”

The pandemic made him more sensitive to the needs of others, he said.

“We’ve seen so much insecurity, people struggling with bills, homelessness, people being forced out of their places.” 

The pandemic helped him see something that he calls “the pain in the valley.”

“Sometimes, people who are helpers or leaders, we stand on the top of the mountain and look down to people. Far away, you don’t see it. You don’t see the pain in the valley, those people forced to live there because of income or race or other forms of inequality.”

Often, people isolate themselves from others in circumstances of inequality.

“We look over the edge at people, when we ought to be with them a little more frequently.”

Neha Singh: ‘We never came back’

When Neha Singh and a group of fellow first-year medical students at Kansas City University went to the airport together to leave for spring break last March, they said, “See you next week.” 

“And then, that never happened. We never came back. We had to transition to online learning when we’re used to being on campus, going to the library, studying with friends. Celebrating the wins and losses with each other. And all of that just changed.”

Neha Sing.

Singh was just stepping into her new role as Student Government Association president.

“The role that I thought I was going to take was completely different than what ended up happening. I was realizing I could barely handle myself. I didn’t know how I was going to take care of a class of 270 students. But we made it work.”

The pandemic changed the way the first-year medical students approached school.

“We were very focused on doing the best that we can, and being on top of the line at school. But as the pandemic came, I think a lot of students started shifting their focus on mental health and taking care of ourselves, as well as the people around us.”

The first day of KCU’s vaccination clinic, on Jan. 15, was the first time Singh got to see fellow students outside of her lab group since the beginning of the pandemic. The clinic gives the students, who are now second-year students, the opportunity to serve as COVID-19 vaccinators.

“I think that this moment signifies even more than any other opportunity we will get in our lives. We were part of the century pandemic, and we’re pretty sure that even in one clinic where we vaccinate 500 people, we might have just saved five lives that day.

“It’s good to know we were part of such a big movement, and not many people are going to get to say that in the long run.”

Garnice Robertson: ‘And this too shall pass’

It’s been almost a year since Garnice Robertson’s mother died from COVID-19.

“I try not to think about it, but of course you can’t help but think about it. The massive change this pandemic has done. It didn’t really have to be the way that it is.”

Garnice Robertson.

Robertson’s mother, Georgia May Clardy, was 89 years old and lived in a nursing home, but she was healthy. Before the pandemic, Robertson went to the nursing home every morning to visit her.

“Not to be able to do that was life changing. I think the thing that sort of helped me with that was the fact that I was teleworking and I didn’t have to leave the house. Leaving the house meant I was going to check on Momma.”

One day in April, Robertson went to the nursing home to fill out paperwork. All hell broke loose, she said.

“They brought her down, and I had to see her through the glass. That was the day they told me the pandemic had hit the facility.”

Clardy was moved to the hospital. Robertson couldn’t visit. When Clardy was moved to comfort care, the hospital staff said one person could visit each day for an hour. Robertson was the first to visit. She wore full personal protective gear.

“She looked at me like, ‘Who are you?’ And then, ‘What is wrong with you?’” 

The nurses let her stay for four hours. Maybe they knew.

“When the nurse said I would have to leave, I said that’s fine. I leaned over, and I kissed my mother, and said, ‘I’m OK.’ She was gone the next day. She didn’t get to see another one of her children.”

Even though she wasn’t able to be there as her mother died, Robertson is grateful. 

“I would say, for those who are still struggling with this pandemic, take it one day at a time. Stay prayerful, stay faithful. Momma always said, ‘And this too shall pass.’ Don’t give into it, don’t let COVID win, despite that it appears it has. Don’t let that pandemic win. Stand up to it, be strong, and keep living.”

Mary Moore: ‘It was like party central’

In the last year, Mary Moore, an 84-year-old resident of St. Luke’s Bishop Spencer Place, an assisted and independent living facility, learned she’s an introvert. 

The pandemic, she said, hasn’t been terrible for her.

Mary Moore.

Maybe it’s because her late husband, a Navy general officer, had three different one-year deployments, which helped her know she’s strong enough to get through isolation. 

Or maybe it’s because of how her generation was raised.

“We were not constantly overwhelmed and entertained as children, so we’ve carried that ability to adapt pretty well and to use our own imaginations, and to learn to read and expand our world within a small space.”

Moore’s family was unable to visit her at Bishop Spencer Place during the pandemic. And each time she left to spend time with them, she spent two weeks quarantined in her room after returning. Meals and mail were delivered, and a housekeeper still visited. After leaving to see her sick brother, and later to go to his funeral, she spent almost the whole month of September isolated.

“I watched a good deal of TV. I was on the internet. I purposefully sought out things I could learn about. I enjoy animal postings. I thought to myself how much I did regret not having pursued dressage, because there was a lot on the internet about equestrian things, and I loved that.”

The time, she said, wasn’t wasted. And Moore received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in January.

“It was like party central down there when they were doing the vaccine because we hadn’t seen each other for so long. We weren’t sure we could recognize each other after so long.”

The other day, a fellow resident stopped by her door for the first time since the pandemic began. Moore looks forward to more exchanges like this.

“It feels lighter to know that we are protected.”

Fatima Gonzalez: ‘From one amiga to another amiga’

In the fall semester of 2020, I was offered the opportunity to be part of the Virtual Traveling Troupe of Kansas Academy of Theatrical Arts. VTT is a group of six students created to promote resilience in our community in the face of COVID-19 and remote learning. As a member of VTT, I was in charge of curating an individual project. I knew that I wanted to do something specifically for high school students that are currently struggling with changes because of the pandemic.

Fatima Gonzales.

I wanted to be able to bring a ripple of hope and change during this difficult time with my project. My school district was the only district that decided to strictly do online school since the beginning of the year and we have yet to be in the classroom.

Seeing so many people in my community struggling reminded me of my dream: to give back to my community. I decided that I would start a podcast: Amiga Advice, which begins: “Welcome to the podcast with advice from one amiga to another amiga.”

For the first episode, I brought Amaya Starks, a VTT member. Amaya is a fellow senior, we talked about the education system and how the pandemic affected education.

I wanted the second episode to be very sincere and candid, so I did it myself. I talked about my mental health journey and different methods I used to overcome anxiety. I wanted to use my platform to bring awareness to the importance of mental health. 

In episode three, I had Sasha Reid, another VTT member. Sasha had already mentioned that she wanted to talk about representation of people of color in predominantly white communities. I knew that many people in my community have suffered a lot with racism and systemic racism. 

One of our most successful episodes was with Warriors for Wyandotte on how violence grew in the community when the pandemic started. Afterwards the CEO posted, “We are so proud of her for going out of the norm and spreading her wings. … She is the perfect example of being the change.” 

Discussing these topics will bring hope and awareness to youth, which was the ultimate goal of this podcast. This is an exciting experience because I’m learning through my peers and I’m spreading awareness to my community. Amiga Advice has allowed me to begin my journey to complete my dream.

Melissa Riley: ‘I had to have her’

When Melissa Riley visited KC Pet Project last March hoping to find a dog, she had already been looking for six months. But every time she’d get close to bringing home a new companion, the adoption would fall through. 

Then she saw Bella — a sweet, white-furred, 10-pound maltese and poodle mix — and fell in love. As Riley walked up to the glass, Bella wagged her tail, not scared at all. She seemed calm, loving, happy. 

Melissa Riley

“I think that all that combined, truly, was what sold me, that I was like, ‘I have to have her.’”

The adoption was Riley’s last hurrah before the pandemic. As Kansas City went under stay-at-home orders, Riley remembers the eeriness of driving to work and not passing any cars. 

Amid the craziness and the unknown around her, Bella became her best friend, her companion, her cheerleader, her rock. And she still is.

Bella’s been with Riley through it all, particularly as she battled the stresses of being a frontline nurse working in the emergency room at a local hospital. The emergency room was a difficult environment to navigate during the pandemic. Precautions increased. Every patient was treated as if they had COVID-19. 

Still, Riley always tried to treat patients and their families as if she were in their shoes, even during the pandemic. Even when it meant getting on the phone to tell family members that their loved one had passed. Those conversations will stay with her forever. 

“That was just heart wrenching, literally having to be on a phone line like that, telling someone that their loved one is either A) Going to pass, or B) Had passed.”

Having Bella helped Riley separate the immense stresses of work from her personal life. She’s kept her motivated. She’s been a pick-me-up between work shifts. And when Riley takes her on walks, she notices the way Bella can attract a smile from a passing stranger — even behind a mask. 

“You can have the worst day, and then you come home and they’re just so happy to see you. They’re so full of energy and love, and it’s really amazing.”

The Beacon is an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest. This story was written by Beacon reporters Brittany Callan and Celisa Calacal, except for submitted first person narratives. Copy edited by Hannah Stinger. Edited by Kelsey Ryan.


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