Gina Rejas is on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis every day, risking her life to protect the lives of others.
She’s not a doctor nor a nurse; she’s a cleaner. Rejas works on a “red zone” floor of White Plains Hospital in Westchester, New York. This means she’s responsible for cleaning a floor with all coronavirus patients in one of the areas hardest-hit by the virus in the country.
Westchester County alone has more than 15,000 coronavirus cases as of Thursday, with a rate of 1,640 infected people per 100,000, according to data from The New York Times. That’s more than New York City, which has a rate of 969 cases per 100,000 people. Plus, White Plains Hospital is a 20-minute drive from New Rochelle, where an exponentially growing cluster of coronavirus cases was discovered in early March, kicking off the greater state battle with the virus.
But Rejas is not complaining. In fact, she’s doing quite the opposite. The hospital worker went viral on Twitter when her son-in-law, Hunter Walker, posted a photo of her at work, covered in personal protective gear. Walker captioned the photo with a translation of a post that Rejas had made in Spanish.
“My mother-in-law is an immigrant from Peru working as a hospital cleaner near the center of the #coronavirus crisis in Westchester NY,” Walker wrote on Twitter. “She posted this photo and said, ‘This is my chance to thank New York for making my family’s dreams come true.’ I love her a lot and am so proud.”
Rejas says the coronavirus crisis is her chance to give back to the community that has given her so much. She says immigrating to New York gave her work and the chance to put both of her daughters through college — a family dream.
“The people of New York are simply extraordinary,” Rejas says in Spanish.
Walker’s tweet has gotten nearly 170,000 likes and more than 20,000 retweets since it was posted on April 4. Positive comments came pouring in on social media thanking Rejas for her work and lauding her upbeat attitude.
When she saw the overwhelming response, son-in-law Walker says Rejas was shocked.
“We had called her when it had like 2,000 likes and she was joking that maybe it would get 5,000. And now, you know, it’s well, well, well beyond that,” Walker says.
But the story is not all positive. Westchester County has seen more than 300 deaths as of Thursday, and working in such a dangerous environment means Rejas must take stringent personal distancing measures to keep those close to her safe.
“I’m filled with pride but I’m also filled with fear that something could happen to her,” says Rejas’ daughter Gloria Walker of her mother’s work. “But I trust my mom. I know she’s very diligent … I also know that for her it’s really important to give back to the community that has welcomed us.”
Rejas says she’s trying to provide the support hospital patients would normally receive from family members who cannot be by their sides.
“We become their families,” Rejas says in Spanish. “We become the smiling face they need to see.”
Those who know Rejas best say she’s the perfect person to provide emotional support in addition to keeping health care professionals and patients safe with her cleaning.
“No one better than my mom,” says daughter Gloria. “She brightens every room she walks into.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.