When she hung up the phone with Simply Cremations of Charlotte, nurse Katie Long readjusted her mask, clasped her hands, and settled into her desk chair at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center. She then spoke with bright eyes and a happy voice, indicating anything but the subject of her last phone call.

As a nurse for the inpatient care specialists, Long is responsible for supporting hospital physicians, communicating with pharmacies, helping patients understand new diagnoses and medications, as well as handling insurance authorization. From her office, she also helps bridge the gap between discharge and post-hospital follow-up.

The last two years have not been easy for people who work in health care. “I could’ve never imagined the extreme stress COVID-19 has put on the health care system,” Long said.

Nervous about a new encounter

As a little girl, Long never dreamed of becoming a nurse or a doctor. It wasn’t until the end of her senior year of high school that she even considered it.

Long’s mother had started a youth program at their church for teens to take cassette tapes of recorded services to people confined to their homes. This is how Long met Ada Gaddy in 2012 and forged a bond with the 90-year-old widow that would one day change her life.

At 18, Long was nervous about how things might go. After all, she wondered, how much she could possibly have in common with Gaddy? But as she continued to visit, they would talk about Gaddy’s family and past career or what Long was busy with at school that week. Long could tell Gaddy was grateful for the company. A friendship developed.

“She had been a hairdresser for over 50 years, so she was used to a lot of talking,” Long said with a chuckle. “Twice a week, for about six months, I would go over to her house and visit.”

Long said she wouldn’t be the same person today if not for that encounter.

“She kept telling me over and over again how I should be a nurse,” said Long. “I never knew why, until one day she opened up about how she wished she had gone to school and become one.”

Saying goodbye

Long still remembers her stomach sinking as she got a call from her mother after school. Gaddy had been hospitalized and passed away from pneumonia.

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“At that point in my life I had never been to a hospital,” said Long. “That feeling of not knowing how to help her was overwhelming, but I decided I could help others if I chose this path.”

Gaddy’s son asked her to speak at his mother’s funeral. She recalls sobbing as she read the poem she wrote for Gaddy.

“Prayer and spirituality are very important to me,” said Long. “Although I wish she could’ve been here for my journey through nursing, I know she’s been looking down on me from heaven.”

From bedside to office

At 38, Long has spent almost two decades working in a hospital. When she first began, she was working night shifts as a bedside nurse on a medical-surgical unit at in Matthews. The demanding, high-pressure job took a toll on Long. When she saw a job opening for a day-shift nurse, Long saw it as a great opportunity for a different kind of role in health care. She was also excited to join a new team and work closer with physicians.

“Working with this team is a totally different flow,” said Long. “While still fast-paced, I’m able to work days and aid in a support role instead of clinical work.”

In the last few years, the hospital has doubled the number of doctors in her unit. With the Charlotte area growing, and the number of doctors increasing, that means there are more patients to be seen.

‘Makes us better’

With a husband, and 8-year-old twin boys, Long is juggling a lot, as many in health care have the last two years.

“COVID-19 affected not only my job, but my family,” said Long. “I can’t wait for normalcy, and the ability to go to the gym or church, or put the boys back in baseball, without worrying.”

Veronika Meabon (left) and Katie Long (right) standing in the doorway of their office.
Veronika Meabon (left) and Katie Long have worked together for the last 15 years.

Veronika Meabon is the other nurse working the unit, describing her work partner as the “yin to her yang.” They’ve worked together every day for the last 15 years.

“With COVID-19 we’ve been dealing with a lot more death certificates and grief,” said Meabon. “We have to fill that emotional support role both for our doctors and each other.”

“Katie is the light who brightens our workday the moment she comes to the office,” said Dr. Sunil Narla. “Hard working, conscientious. Makes us better at what we do and holds us accountable.”

Making Ada proud

Long was part of the Nursing Fellows program at UNC Charlotte, where she graduated. She has thought about going back to school for a master’s degree in nursing education sometime soon. With that, she could teach in the hospital setting or in a community health role.

Long said she feels blessed to have taken the opportunity to work at Novant Health, and enjoys coming to work every day not only because of her work family, but because she is able to stay connected to patients over the phone even if she isn’t seeing them in person anymore.

She is pretty sure Ada would be proud.