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(Photo Credit: David Benthal)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the East End with sudden devastation, local health care workers stepped up to keep us safe. In this weeklong series ahead of the Thanksgiving season, we’re proud to highlight their work and show them our gratitude.

Althea Mills | Chief nursing officer and vice president of patient services, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital

Althea Mills grew up in Tobago (“an island smaller than Long Island”) before emigrating with her family to Brooklyn and relocating to raise her family in Brentwood. Starting as a nurse’s aide, she has worked her way through the ranks of nursing and two years ago was elevated to her leadership role at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. “I am very spiritual, and I do what I do because I feel that God has a mission for me to accomplish,” she said. “So I was prepared for this, even though I wasn’t consciously doing that.” 

Photo Credit: David Benthal

“In early March, we had the first COVID-19 positive patient in Suffolk County. That Saturday morning life as we knew it changed.

We were fearful and anxious, not just about contracting the disease, but the governor’s mandate to prepare for a surge was a heavy lift. Not only did we have to come up with beds, but also we had to staff and service those additional areas. About five days into the crisis, we gelled. We began to feel a lot calmer and operate like a well-oiled machine. I will always remember the look on the faces of each other when we realized, ‘We’ve got this.’ We knew for us to make it through this crisis, we could only fight one war, and that was COVID-19. We didn’t have time to be fighting each other.

In nursing administration, I’m typically working on a computer, collaborating with middle management and leaders to pass on strategic goals. During COVID, forget it. I knew I had to get out and be on the front line myself. I had to change into scrubs and sneakers. I was converting office space into hospital wards, starting IVs. I needed to let my staff see that I was leading by example and I was not fearful of what was coming. And to support them and hold their hands and give them the strength to carry on.

It’s an opportunity and a privilege to be of service to others.

— Althea Mills

One Saturday morning, I was waiting for a package. A couple of cables were missing from a monitor that we needed in order to expand the ICU. But when the FedEx package arrived, there was nothing looking like cables inside. I jumped out of my bed, I left my home in Brentwood, went to Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport to get the cables we needed, and then drove from Greenport to Southampton. When I had delivered the cables, I looked down and realized, “I’m still in my pajamas!” That memory will always stick out to me — when I knew that I could meet my patients’ needs and I wasn’t letting down my staff that was depending on me. That was one of the best days through this crisis.

This Thanksgiving I am very grateful for life. I have close friends who spent weeks in the hospital, and some who died. I myself have an autoimmune condition that puts me at high risk. I’m grateful for the tremendous outpouring of love and support we received from our community. And I am forever grateful for the leadership of this hospital, and my coworkers who are an extended family that I have grown to love and treasure.

I am grateful that God gave me the opportunity to be helpful, to impact people’s lives when they are at their most vulnerable. Anybody who chooses to work in that sacred space between sickness and death should count themselves blessed. It’s an opportunity and a privilege to be of service to others.”