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North Carolina’s front-line healthcare workers have been giving everything they’ve got to help patients survive COVID-19. “We continue to persevere and give 110% when we show up [but] it hasn’t gotten any easier—and I will tell you, these are very sad days,” says Catherine Austin, an intensive care nurse at the Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center (CMC).
But it was a different story for three days in January at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The tears that it brought us were pure tears of joy,” says Austin. “It was a blessing at the exact right moment.”
With game-changing vaccinations available, teams of nurses and other medical professionals in North Carolina left their hospitals and went to the races. They seized the opportunity to take a break from treating critically ill patients with COVID-19 to keep people from ever catching it.
The “Fill Your Tank” vaccination event held at the Speedway, took place over three days in late January. The goal? Give 16,000 North Carolinians their second vaccine dose. Atrium Health, with support from the State of North Carolina, partnered with Speedway Motorsports to put on the event in order to get as many eligible people vaccinated as quickly as possible.
More than a dozen nurses from the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the CMC main campus volunteered for shifts at the Speedway event. Critical care nurses from Atrium Health Cabarrus and Levine Children’s Hospital Emergency Department (ED) joined them in the team effort.
A much-needed relief
Although the day was freezing cold and rainy, it didn’t dampen the volunteers’ spirits. It hardly mattered if that they were cold and wet because the day was a rare bright spot in their fight to protect North Carolina.
Monica Watts, nurse manager of the Children’s Emergency Room at Levine Children’s Hospital and a volunteer at the event, has seen the pandemic take its toll on her colleagues. “They stay until every patient is cared for, they put every patient before themselves … and they do it with a smile on their face,” she says. Watts says she hadn’t realized that she, and so many of her peers, were running on empty, until they “filled their tanks” at the Speedway.
As the cars streamed through and vaccinations were given, Austin and Watts felt their spirits lift for the first time in a long time. After months of caring for the ill and dying, they were seeing healthy people full of joy. Some people brought gifts, displayed posters in their cars with messages of gratitude and effusively thanked the clinicians for helping them get vaccinated. “There was music, there was singing, there was happiness,” says Austin. “That really fills our cup and allows us to want to continue to go back every single day and give 110% for our community.”
Inspiration to keep fighting
Watts was joyful after her experience, too. She left the event saying, “This is the best work that we have done in such a long time,” she says. The director of Disaster Medicine at Levine Children’s Hospital’s ED also volunteered at the Speedway before going to work all night at the hospital. He told Watts, “This was the happiest day of my entire year.”
“It’s what we all needed,” says Watts. “We feel like every single vaccination we give is one step closer to having this pandemic end and life going back to normal.”