At 70 years old, Iris Meda knew that returning to work in the middle of the pandemic was risky. She had retired as a nurse in January, but when the coronavirus arrived two months later, she decided she had no choice but to return to a teaching role, to help train young students who might someday help battle the virus.
“She felt like if she could gain momentum by teaching some of those basics, we could contain any virus,” her daughter, Selene Meda-Schlamel, told The Washington Post on Monday. “She wanted to do something that would make a difference.”
For months, she taught nursing basics to dozens of students in person at Collin College in suburban Dallas. But in October, a student exposed her to the virus, the school said, and last month, Meda died of complications from covid-19.
As the coronavirus has killed at least 256,000 Americans, the virus has also taken a vicious toll on health-care workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least 232,497 health-care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 836 have died.
While Meda wasn’t a front-line nurse anymore, her daughter says she knowingly took a serious risk at her age to help educate future nurses during the global health crisis.
Meda, a native of Charleston, S.C. who moved to Harlem when she was 7, never finished high school, her daughter said. But she completed her GED and got a degree in nursing from the City College of New York in 1984. She worked as a nurse at Rikers Island Correctional Facility and, after moving to north Texas, the Lew Sterrett Justice Center in Dallas.
In January, Meda retired as a nursing clinic administrator with the North Texas Job Corps. She had plans to travel with her husband, John, to reconnect with siblings, to get professional portraits taken and to ride in a convertible for the first time, her daughter said.
“So when the pandemic hit and she had to go into isolation because of her age, it was difficult for her because she had all these plans,” said Meda-Schlamel, 47.
She kept herself occupied by closely following the spread of the coronavirus, particularly in her adopted hometown of New York, which became the center of the pandemic.
“All she did was sit there and watch it and talk to everyone about what she was seeing,” Meda-Schlamel said. “She was very well-informed.”
She spent some time as an informal consultant for her previous job, providing advice on how to quarantine and monitor students who fell ill. But she wanted to do more.
So in April, Meda applied to Collin College to teach high school juniors and seniors who were interested in nursing careers. The school promised the students would maintain a safe distance and wear masks, her daughter said. She began teaching in August.
As a former high school dropout, she connected particularly well with students who struggled with the class, her daughter said.
“She understood that sometimes you need a little bit of encouragement and support, and that alone can open doors for people,” Meda-Schlamel said. “She wanted to be that person opening doors for others.”
In an email to the college on Monday, President H. Neil Matkin said that on Oct. 2 Meda was in contact with a student who was showing symptoms including sneezing, coughing and watery eyes, Inside Higher Ed reported. Although everyone was wearing masks, the lesson taught that day prevented Meda from socially distancing from the students, he said.
Meda learned the student had tested positive on Oct. 9, the president said, and two days later, began exhibiting symptoms. She was admitted to the hospital on Oct. 17.
“She was hopeful that she would get out of it because her last words were ‘I’m going to fight. I’m New York strong,’” her daughter said.
She received two antibodies transfusions and a dose of remdesivir as she battled pneumonia, but doctors had to intubate her on Oct. 28, Meda-Schlamel said. She died of heart failure on Nov. 14.
Her work will live on through the dozens of students she worked with, Meda-Schlamel said.
“For her, this was also a service to her country, being able to usher nursing assistants into the work field during a pandemic when they are most needed,” Meda-Schlamel said. “I hope that students realize the compromise that their teachers are putting themselves in and recognize that they are themselves heroes.”