In the ICU and at George Floyd Square, one nurse fights two pandemics

A woman in a colorful head wrap uses a sthethoscope on a man.
Jeanette Rupert uses her stethoscope to listen to Bob Hull's breathing in the bedroom of his home near George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on Dec. 16. Rupert checks in on Hull frequently to help him understand how to properly use his medications and check vitals.
Evan Frost | MPR News

With a massive red medical bag slung over her shoulder, nurse Jeanette Rupert heads out for an evening house call in south Minneapolis.

She knocks on the door of Bob Hull, a military veteran recovering from surgery — and a longtime neighborhood stalwart. She’s been there before to check his medications, take his blood pressure. It’s basic preventive care Rupert has offered here, in the neighborhood around the corner where George Floyd was killed, for months — when she’s not treating COVID-19 patients in the hospital.

Before Rupert leaves, Hull thanks her for all the work she’s been doing for him, and for others in the neighborhood.

“You’re the heroes out here now,” he said. “You’re very knowledgeable, you’re very considerate, you’ve got a good bedside manner — and you make me wear a mask.”

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Rupert’s easy laugh disguises her physical and emotional exhaustion.

That evening, she was running on just a few hours of sleep after coming home from an overnight shift at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park; preparing for a visitation for a friend who recently died; and then heading to do her volunteer work in George Floyd Square.

The spot, at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, is in the center of the neighborhood where Rupert grew up — and where most of her extended family still lives.

And on May 25, it became the nexus of two tragedies that have defined her year, both as an ICU nurse, and as a Black woman raising Black children in a world she worries remains stacked against them. Here, George Floyd was killed — and here, and across the country, the pandemic continues to ravage communities of color.

"Emotionally, it's been tough to see people of color dying in the ICU, because we are also dying in the streets,” she said.

A person in PPE stands at a bed of a patient.
Jeanette Rupert works on a patient in the COVID-19 ICU ward at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park on Dec. 21.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The statistics are stark.

The state health department reports that Black Minnesotans have been twice as likely to test positive for the virus as white Minnesotans, and similar statistics hold true for other communities of color.

People of color are more likely to land in the hospital and to die, too — vulnerabilities often compounded by underlying health conditions that are the byproducts of centuries-old structural racism in health care, in housing, in education and in earning power.

Those statistics haunt Rupert daily, whether she's at the bedside of a dying COVID-19 patient or working in the medical tent at 38th and Chicago.

They haunt her because they are artifacts of problems so deep and prolonged that they seem insurmountable.

"We're also dying in a failed school system. We're also dying in a failed health care system. We're also dying in a failed corporate America,” said. “It's everywhere, and it breaks my heart when I'm seeing death to that magnitude for Black and brown people, when there's so much against them already."

Feeling called — and committed

Rupert says she's the type of person who feels called to do certain things, and when she does, she goes all in. It helps explain her relentless schedule — bouncing from home to work to George Floyd Square and back again.

It was 10 years ago, Rupert said, when she felt called to become an orthopedic nurse. Her oldest son — he was 7 at the time — had been hit by a car, and landed in the hospital.

She was inspired, she said, by the care he was given.

"From then I knew I wanted to be a part of the health care system, and to give back,” she said. “I saw the incredible work they did with my son.”

This spring, as the pandemic was taking hold of the state, Rupert said she felt called again — this time to work in the ICU.

She visited her hospital’s COVID-19 unit one day, and after seeing people dying from this mysterious illness, seeing her coworkers tired in their bones, she knew there was no going back.

"There's that tug on your heart, that pull on your heart that said, ‘This is where you need to be.’ And in the middle of the pandemic, I switched to the ICU,” she said. “And here we are."

A few months later, the morning after Memorial Day, Rupert's brother called to her to tell her that a Black man had been killed by police the night before, just yards from their childhood home.

They rushed to the intersection, 38th and Chicago.

"I remember tears flooding my eyes, trying to understand what was going on,” she said. “It was like, 'This is my home, this is my street. These are the people I grew up with.’”

But amidst the growing chaos of the unrest that would envelop Minneapolis in the next few days, Rupert was drawn — just as she was to nursing, and to the ICU — to a makeshift tent dispensing medical care for anyone who needed it, for sunburns, bee stings, wounds.

"I came back the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I found myself coming after work, coming before work, donating supplies,” she said.

Throwing herself into this volunteer work was personal. And it wasn't just that George Floyd had died on the street she grew up on, in the community that raised her.

A man and woman in mask hug.
Jeanette Rupert hugs Bob Hull as she wraps up a health check in Minneapolis on Dec. 16. Hull is known as "Uncle Bob" to neighbors and people who frequent George Floyd Square.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It was also about being a Black medical professional in a community that may not be used to seeing Black medical professionals.

"When I was young, I didn't think I could be a nurse or doctor,” Rupert said. “I didn't see that modeled for me, so I knew it was very important to see us in the health care profession."

Through the summer, Rupert and her fellow volunteers leveraged their reputations as trusted medical providers to create a new nonprofit, 612 MASH, which stands for Minneapolis All Shall Heal. The group’s workspace has evolved from a canvas tent to a more stable heated structure, and a van stocked with medical gear.

The group provides basic medical aid and education in the community — like that blood pressure and medication check at Bob Hull’s place — the type of basic care that they hope, if it's consistent enough and widespread enough, will prevent the types of underlying health conditions that have made people of color so susceptible to the worst of COVID-19.

Rupert’s commitment to supporting this neighborhood has become a family affair, with her younger sister, Jeanelle Austin, serving as lead caretaker for George Floyd square.

Stamina and strength to continue the work

As 2020 inches to a close, Rupert reflects on what's changed for her in this turbulent year.

The systemic racism laid bare in the COVID-19 statistics and in George Floyd's death is nothing new to her, she said. But watching these two events unfold simultaneously has given her a new lens on an old problem, one that has deepened her affection for — and her connection to — her community.

"For me, it wasn't an awakening,” Rupert said. “It's something I live on a day-to-day basis. But for me, it helped me value my friends and family and my loved ones even more so."

She says it's coming home to her husband and her four children, and spending time in her faith where Rupert finds all the stamina and strength she needs to continue this work. The time she spends with them is limited — and precious.

A woman walks down a hallway with an "Intensive Care Unit" sign above her.
Jeanette Rupert returns to Methodist Hospital's ICU at the end of her shift last Monday. After working the overnight shift, Rupert left to go do health checks on neighbors in George Floyd square.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“With that, I fill up, and then I give,” she said. “And then I come back home, and I fill up some more, and I go out, and I give.”

Rupert says she's hopeful for 2021 — for date nights out with her husband, for a vaccine, for an end to the pandemic.

But a moment not long ago in the COVID-19 unit reminded Rupert that her work at the intersection of health and racial justice is ongoing — and essential.

“We had a 28-year-old pass away, and hit me,” she said. “When I looked at the [birth date] on the death certificate, my heart just sunk, and I thought: '1992.’ And it was a person of color. I just thought: We have to do something. We can't keep going like this. We can't."

Looking back, looking ahead As 2020 comes to a close, several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.