Shenetta White-Ballard

Shenetta White-Ballard 

Nurse Shenetta White-Ballard knew she was particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, but she went to work anyway — portable oxygen device in tow.

A severe case of bronchitis followed by pneumonia had left the 44-year-old with chronic respiratory issues two years ago, so relying on oxygen to go about her daily life was a relatively new normal.

Despite this risk to her health, she continued to show up to her job at Legacy Nursing and Rehabilitation of Port Allen, where the Louisiana Department of Health reports at least 15 residents have died from COVID-19. Several days after completing a particularly long shift, White-Ballard died on May 1 at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center from the disease.

Legacy representatives say White-Ballard made “a personal choice” to continue working in an environment with COVID-19 positive patients.

“Mrs. White, like many healthcare professionals across the country, chose to continue serving her resident population,” said Myles Holyfield, a Legacy spokesperson. “She did so with honor and professionalism. Shenetta is an example of risk that healthcare workers are willing to take while caring of the most vulnerable of our citizens.”

Yet friends and family said she was terrified. As the member of her household with more secure financial footing, she felt a responsibility to keep working.

White-Ballard’s experience on the front lines of the coronavirus battle highlights the plight of many essential workers these past few months: continue to work at a job that places an employee at risk of infection, or walk away and face serious financial challenges.

Eddie Ballard, Shenetta White-Ballard’s husband of 11 years, knows all too well the struggles of being “essential” right now. He works at Walmart and has been given a two-week period to mourn his wife’s death.

His grief has debilitated him, he said, leaving him feeling aimless and unable to think clearly.

“The only thing I’m doing right now is trying to hide it — I’m holding it down inside,” Ballard said. “I know I have to release it, but I can’t right now. I have too many things to do.”

Now, he has to both raise and provide for their 14-year-old son alone. For this reason, Ballard said he “can’t completely break down” from his sadness.

“I wish I could,” he said.

Friends and family describe White-Ballard as kind and giving, with a radiant smile that remained with those she encountered.

It was her love of people that led White-Ballard to nursing. Alana Percy, her friend of more than 20 years, said the two met while working at a casino. White-Ballard was uncompromising in her goals: she wasn't going to be there forever. She was going to be a nurse. 

White-Ballard eventually worked her way through Delta College and became a licensed practical nurse, beginning her career in assisted living facilities. 

"She just loved the work. She loved being a nurse," her husband said. "She wanted to keep going to work and take care of her patients. All her residents knew her."

Legacy described her as "one of our most beloved employees."

Pentral Ross, a close friend of White-Ballard, said the mourning process has been difficult given all the restrictions to keep everyone safe from the virus.

"I wanted to hug her husband so bad at the [funeral] service," Ross said. "It just felt so not right to not hug him, but I’m trying to protect myself because I have children and a husband. You can’t show the compassion that you want to show."

Ross remembers her friend as strong and the "backbone" of her family unit. 

"She had no one to take care of her," Ross said. "She always took care of herself. No momma, no daddy. She didn’t really have the support she needed."

It's not clear exactly why White-Ballard continued to work at a high-risk job. New LDH data released Monday shows that of the 104 residents at Legacy, 26 have been diagnosed with the disease. Fourteen staff members have also reportedly been infected. 

It is not clear how many residents and staff were infected at the time of White-Ballard's death in early May.  

Her husband said she never told him she dealt with COVID-19 patients; had he known, he would have demanded she find a way to stay home. Friends said she didn't feel financially stable enough to walk away, but also that she loved her patients and cared for them deeply. 

"She had a beautiful heart," her husband said. "I want her to be known for her sacrifice."

A Legacy representative said White-Ballard was aware of her options. Some employees chose not to work in the facility because of COVID-19 positive residents. Others took a short leave of absence and have since returned to work, while others have chosen to not return at all.

"These choices are very personal to health care workers across the industry,"  Holyfield said. "We, at Legacy, support those choices, whichever direction they may lead."

A coworker of White-Ballard, who did not wish to be named to protect her job, said she feels it is not a mystery why her colleague returned day after day to a place that put her in danger.

"The same reason as to why she was willing to go to work is the reason a lot of people are still going to work," she said. "They don’t have anyone else to do [the job]. It has to get done."


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com