Jamal White is a towering presence – his tall athletic frame can easily be seen at the end of the hospital hallway. But when you are up close and in his personal space, he is unassuming and gentle.The juxtaposition between his tender soul and large stature couldn’t be more striking. 

Jamal works in the Emergency Department of the Berkeley Medical Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, where he’s been on the staff there as a custodian for the past two years. On a cool Friday evening in November 2020, he quietly cleans a hallway as the COVID19 pandemic rages through his workplace. 

Jamal White has worked at the Berkeley Medical Center for the past two years and can often be found in the hallways taking care of the needs of staff and patients alike. Photo: Molly Humphreys/Healthcare is Human

Jamal’s New York accent flavors his speech. He has a soft voice and a self-deprecating style, but that disappears as he firmly says,“I believe in hope. For me that means Helping Other People Everyday. HOPE,” Jamal nods with conviction. 

“I look forward to coming to work everyday,” he says with a broad smile that you can easily see even beneath his mask. Despite working for months during a pandemic that has upended his day-to-day responsibilities, Jamal remains positive and forward-looking. As he speaks, his brown eyes flash above his mask. “I have a strong relationship with my coworkers.”

“I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in New York, so I’ve lived through some things,” Jamal White shares, but the pandemic has been a challenge for him. Photo: Molly Humphreys/Healthcare is Human

Pass out trays to patients? Jamal does that. Put equipment away? He does that too. Help the nursing staff? Yes, again. That wheelchair that needs to be returned all the way to the far end of the hospital? You know the answer. “I do whatever needs to be done – even if it’s not in my job description.” Jamal isn’t bragging, just saying.

“I believe in HOPE. Helping Other People Everyday,” Jamal White says, which is true of his work at the Berkeley Medical Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Photo: Molly Humphreys/Healthcare is Human

He says working in the pandemic, “isn’t really that bad. My mind tries to tell me that it is bad, but my spirit says it’s not.”  But he admits there have been terribly difficult moments which will linger longer than the pandemic. Like many other healthcare workers, Jamal is exposed to emotional trauma on a daily basis. “I saw a toddler pass away in the trauma room. So that is embedded in me. I’ve seen more senior citizens come in here and it ruffles my spirit. I’m a senior citizen myself and it’s an eye-opener for me.”

“I grew up in New York City in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I’m showing my age here, so I’ve seen some things. I lived through all of that,” Jamal reflects. “I think about what my children and grandchildren will have to go through. Life is too short to stay in the negative. This too shall pass. Not in my time, but it shall pass.”

Healthcare is Human is an independent podcast produced by Ryan McCarthy, Shruthi Sreekumar, Molly Humphreys and Kym Mattioli out of Martinsburg, West Virginia. Listen to their latest episodes on their Soundcloud or keep up with their latest work on Facebook.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.