Prep Sports

Vinton-Shellsburg senior golfers join coronavirus fight in New Jersey as nurses

Lillie Lamont and Carli Lang left to work for care facility in West Caldwell, N.J.

Lillie Lamont (left) and Carli Lang. (CJ Eilers/Vinton Newspapers).
Lillie Lamont (left) and Carli Lang. (CJ Eilers/Vinton Newspapers).
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Carli Lang and Lillie Lamont loaded up Lang’s Chevy Impala and pulled away as their families waved goodbye, shrinking in the rearview mirror.

The Vinton-Shellsburg seniors weren’t heading to a simple sleepover or an overnight college campus visit. The 18-year-old duo was leaving the comforts of home and embarking on the more than 1,000-mile trek from Vinton to West Caldwell, N.J.

The longtime friends and Certified Nursing Assistants decided to do their part in helping with the shortage of medical professionals and the need for help during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lamont admitted she isn’t much of a morning person but was excited at the start of the new quest.

“Carli and I both knew we really wanted to do this,” Lamont said. “We really wanted to help. Not that we didn’t think a whole lot about it but it was something we were sure about. It just felt right. It felt like something we should do. It was like the right thing.”

Lang and Lamont have spent almost a month working at a care facility in New Jersey that has been converted into a COVID-19 hospital, treating patients with the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. They continue to work 48 hours a week until their contract expires in mid-June.

“I think it has been a surprising experience,” Lang said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot, being out here. There are times where my job is really difficult and then there are times where I feel like I’m really helping people.

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“Originally, it was a little bit of a shock. Now that Lillie and I have been out here a couple of weeks, we’re kind of getting into the swing of things. We’re learning how things are going. It’s a lot different from back at home.”

There were concerns at first. Both were nervous, as were their families. They received support to do it.

“I think my family was really concerned, especially when I originally introduced the idea of going to New Jersey,” Lang said. “I think they didn’t want me to go. They were really supportive of me. They just worried because they care.”

Lang and Lamont earned their CNA certification during the summer. They worked part-time at Virginia Gay Hospital in Vinton. Lang said the hospital’s emergency room had only seen one COVID-19 patient who didn’t need hospitalization while they were there.

They recognized the need elsewhere and applied to help through a travel group. The process accelerated in breakneck speed. They submitted their interest in the evening and received an acceptance call the next afternoon.

“We got a call and they wanted us to sign the contract the following morning,” Lang said. “It was like a 24 to 48-hour period from when we had the idea to when we signed the contract.”

Less than a week later they were heading east with the 2005 Impala loaded with what they needed for an eight-week venture. The community gave them a send-off the night before they left their family.

“It happened so quickly,” Lamont said. “Once we reached out to the agency it was like all of a sudden we have to sign our contract and find housing. It was one thing after another.

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“I don’t know if there was time to process it. Having Carli here with me, I was never really that nervous about it.”

They originally stayed at an Airbnb, but sought other arrangements for safety precautions. Many hotels and Airbnb locations turned away those working with COVID-19 patients. Lang’s grandmother contacted a friend who runs hotels and they found a place to stay with a kitchenette and within a 15-minute drive to work.

They were contracted to work 12-hour shifts, but have been encouraged to work 8-, 12- or 16-hour shifts.

“We’ve been trying to find a balance with all of that, trying to get our 48 hours in a week,” Lang said. “We also have the option, they encourage us, to pick up more shifts beyond 48 hours. We might give that a shot once school is over. Right now, it’s not really feasible for us.”

They work at the same time, but assigned to different floors. They try to spend their short lunch breaks together, if they even have the chance for one.

The best friends since preschool rely on one another for emotional support and for help with tasks so they don’t have to bother some of the other independent co-workers. They also talk about what they are experiencing at work and being so far from their families.

“She feels like a little bit of home,” Lamont said of Lang. “It’s nice to have her. Everything is a little bit different out here.

“Our work day is emotionally and physically draining. At the end of the day, it’s nice to come home to someone that you know going through the same things and I’m already so comfortable with her. It’s a nice feeling that we can talk about our days. I don’t think I could do it alone that’s for sure.”

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Lang said, “Having Lillie has been helpful, especially when I need something. I can reach out to someone I know and trust.”

They have worked directly with patients, who have been struck by the coronavirus. Both said they have met interesting people, caring for those struggling with illness and loneliness since visitors aren’t allowed. They held patients’ hands during tough moments or listened to them share personal stories.

“I think the hardest thing is pretty much everyone in there is very sad and misses their family,” Lamont said. “They are isolated in their rooms and they never get to leave. They never get to see their loved ones.

“Carli and I discussed we are really the people that go in there and have to be their light in the dark. We’re basically their family and that can be hard emotionally, because you’re surrounded by that all day.”

They balance their shifts with continued school work. They spend days off finishing their online classes before splurging on a trip to the laundromat and the grocery store for food. Lamont is No. 1 in her class at Vinton-Shellsburg and initially plans to major in biochemistry at University of Iowa, while Lang is third and planning to go to Iowa State.

This spring was supposed to be spent on the golf course. Lang and Lamont were expected to be leaders on the golf team. Lamont was the returning Wamac Conference champion, averaging about 46 per nine holes and 92.5 per 18. Lang was the team’s No. 2 golfer as a junior, earning second-team all-conference.

“We talked about how we both had accepted our golf season was over before we had the idea to come out here,” Lang said. “It was harder to know that we were going to miss out on a lot of those things, but we talked about how golf is going to be a lifelong sport for the two of us.

“Although it’s disappointing we’re going to miss out on a lot of those things with golf this year, golf is going to be an important part of our lives after all of this.”

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In addition to their final prep golf campaign, they anticipated all of the normal senior year festivities. There was supposed to be prom. They were ready for commencement and classmates’ graduation parties.

“For a long time, I had in the back of my head that we’re probably not going back to school,” Lamont said. “When it hit me, it was a bummer. I had a lot of goals for this season. There were things I wanted to accomplish. Golf is something you can always do. I’m hoping when I get back the golf courses will all be open and I can golf with Carli or my family. It is something I enjoy for fun.

“It is hard, knowing we missed out on the golf season and all the other memories of high school with all the senior activities.”

Vinton-Shellsburg Coach Janet Woodhouse said Lang and Lamont were strong leaders for her program. She noted they made this decision before they realized there was no golf season, making the sacrifice to do good.

“I am so proud of them for what they have chosen to do: put themselves on the front line to fight the coronavirus in a state and facility far from their comfort zone,” Woodhouse said in an email to The Gazette. “They drove there together, arranged their own housing ... and chose to leave behind their final golf season, senior awards night, prom, graduation ceremony, grad party and the comfort zone of their familiar friends, community, school and families. These choices were made before the school had made final decisions in this uncharted time.”

Service might not end when the contract expires. Lamont and Lang will analyze the situation. They will factor in the severity of the pandemic, whether or not college classes will resume in person or be online and if medical staffing is in need.

“It depends on the direction we see the virus going,” Lang said. “If it looks like they are going to expect things to go into the fall or we’re going to have another surge, we have discussed the possibility of extending our contract or going someplace else.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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