A School District of Philadelphia nurse is featured in Time magazine.
Rudolph Blankenburg Elementary School nurse Shelah McMillan is featured in Time’s 2020 Person of the Year issue, which names frontline health care workers as Guardians of the Year.
McMillan appears on the publication’s cover saluting health care workers’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I first found out that I was going to be a part of Time magazine, I was shocked and completely overwhelmed,” McMillan said. “I was highlighted by 6ABC locally, but I didn’t think that would turn into something nationally.”
McMillan has worked in the School District of Philadelphia for three years. Blankenburg is the first school that she’s worked at as a nurse.
After the novel coronavirus started to spread, McMillan provided weekly updates to Blankenburg’s leadership team and staff during meetings. She also made sure that the school’s Chromebooks distribution was not only safe, but also socially distanced.
Since being at the school, McMillan has become a confidante for students, a resource for families, and a support system for the staff and the Blankenburg community.
“Nurse Shelah is not just a school nurse, but a community nurse,” said Blankenburg Principal Leandrea Hagan. “She brings a safe and nurturing environment to this school and she always gives invaluable input.
“She constantly checks on our families and scholars; she’s really been a therapist for our school throughout all of this,” she added. “There is just so much love and warmth that comes with knowing her.”
McMillan fully understands the important role health care workers play in helping communities stay well, particularly during the pandemic. It’s a role she has embraced.
“As a mother, I know there’s nothing more important than making sure our children are healthy and well taken care of,” McMillan said. “There’s nothing more I love than being in a school and letting children and their families know that we’re here for them.
“With school buildings closed, I haven’t been able to see all of my students, but this work has allowed me to connect with so many more families across the region,” she added. “It’s been truly a rewarding experience, especially when I connect with Blankenburg families and let them know we’re still here for them and want to make sure they get through this.”
McMillan also works as an emergency room nurse at Albert Einstein Medical Center.
“When COVID first hit, [our patients] doubled,” McMillan said. “We had to cut the waiting room off, so if you weren’t having COVID-like symptoms, we weren’t bringing in any new patients.
“In the emergency room, I have an assignment of three to five people. Of my three to five people that I have an assignment for, I can guarantee three of my five had symptoms. At least two were COVID positive on any given assignment.
“We’re constantly gowned with a face shield and mask,” she added. “We had to do this for every patient because you didn’t know who has COVID. We went from having two ventilators on standby to having six. The hospital became overrun. We’re exposed constantly; I would say 50% of our shifts were exposed.”
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are at 1.4 times greater risk of contracting COVID-19 than white non-Hispanics; among Hispanic communities, the risk is 1.7 times greater. Both groups are at 2.8 times greater risk of death from the disease than white people.
Since April, McMillan has worked with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which provides free testing in African-American communities in the Philadelphia region that have been hit hardest by the virus. The nonprofit was founded by Dr. Ala Stanford.
“Dr. Stanford operated on my daughter a few years ago,” McMillan said. “At the time, she didn’t know that I was a nurse. She also knew me from when I was an accountant.
“I reached out to her and asked her, ‘How can I help you?’ and she said, ‘You can bring me nurses.’ I said no problem. I went to her second testing site, which was at Enon, and I’ve been helping out ever since,” she added.
In addition to conducting tests with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, McMillan is responsible for calling people who tested positive for COVID-19. She said there have been days when making those calls has been difficult.
“To know that there’s another person on the frontlines with you and they’ve been trying to protect their family and then you have to turn around and tell them that not only are they positive, but their entire house is positive,” McMillan said.
“To hear that person break because they worked so hard to keep their family safe took the biggest toll on me,” she added. “I had to take a break for a second. You know, it’s hard. I’m scared, but I’m hopeful and faithful. I also stay prayerful.”
McMillan, 46, graduated from Lankenau-Germantown Motivation High School. She became a nurse in 2014 after years of being an accountant.
She earned a bachelor’s of business administration in accounting from Temple University, a master’s of business administration in global management from the University of Phoenix, and a bachelor’s of science in nursing from Thomas Jefferson University.
McMillan said that while she is excited about being in Time magazine, what she hopes people take away from her story is determination.
“There will be a lot of people in life that will tell you no, but there are also a lot of people who will tell you yes,” McMillan said. “It’s about believing in yourself.
“Blankenburg’s school motto is ‘Destined for Greatness’ and I love that motto because everyone is destined for greatness,” she added. “If you believe in you it’s not going to be hard for anybody else to believe in you.”