Updated: Oct 6, 2020
When the coronavirus hit the United States, Patricia Edwards' resolve to help patients became stronger than ever.
An intensive care unit nurse for three decades, she had worked the overnight shift her entire career, taking care of the sickest patients in the hospital during the most trying hours of the night. The Greenville, South Carolina, resident knew she was needed in the fight against the pandemic.
But what Edwards, 62, did not know was that the coronavirus would eventually infect her own household, killing her and her mother in the span of a week.
Edwards is one of more than 670 front-line health care workers who have died from the coronavirus, and her Aug. 19 death has devastated her community, Sherie Gamble, 45, her oldest daughter, said. Since Edwards died, her son and her four daughters have been overwhelmed with calls and online tributes from colleagues, neighbors, friends and relatives of former patients whose lives she touched — inspiring Gamble to create a scholarship in her mother's name.
"My mom was everything to everybody," Gamble said. "We knew how much she was loved, but we didn’t know to this magnitude."
The Patricia "Nurse Pat" Edwards Nursing Scholarship will go to college juniors and seniors pursuing a nursing degree. Its goal is to bring more nurses into the field who embody Edwards' caring nature, Gamble said.
"Nobody was a nurse like Mama," Gamble said. "She was an old-school nurse, as you would say. She still gave sponge baths to her patients. She cared like no other nurse would care."
Her patients and their families appreciated her tenderness: Over the years, Edwards received many cakes and other goodies as thank you gifts, Gamble said. And Edwards made sure each patient felt they were in good hands. Gamble still remembers the deep connection Edwards formed with an older patient a couple of decades ago who had been visiting from out of town when he fell gravely ill; because he had no family in the area, Edwards took on the role of surrogate relative in addition to nurse for the couple of weeks that he spent in her intensive care unit.
"She took care of him in a way a daughter would," Gamble said. The man recovered and his family was so appreciative to Edwards that they kept in touch with her. Edwards later had them all over for a barbecue at her house with her children.
Despite years of working the third shift — 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. — Edwards always made time for her family. When another daughter, Emily Holloway, was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2018, Edwards regularly made the 100-mile drive to Charlotte, North Carolina, to go with her to every chemotherapy treatment. She would stay through the weekend, cooking enough meals for Holloway and her children to have during the week.
"She was there every step of the way," Holloway, 43, who has been in remission for just over a year, said.
Edwards' mother, Rosa Lee Finch Hellams, a sprightly and sharp 96-year-old, died of the coronavirus in a different hospital Aug. 26, a day after the family buried Edwards. Hellams lived with Edwards, Gamble and Gamble's son, and greeted everyone who came in the door from her favorite seat in the living room, Holloway said.
"I think it’s unfortunate that they both passed together at the same time, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason, because my mom, just as she cared for the community, she cared for her mom," Holloway, a strategic account specialist working in telecommunications, said.
Edwards' family is not sure where she caught the coronavirus. She was diagnosed with it Aug. 7 and was rushed to the hospital two days later with a high fever and plummeting oxygen levels.
It was at Edwards' intensive care unit at Bon Secours St. Francis - Greenville, where she had worked for the past 14 years, that she died. The staff members who tended to her in her final days were her colleagues.
"They were grieving with us," Gamble said. "They were extraordinary with her because it was one of their own, and they knew the nurse that she was."
Born in Chicago on April 4, 1958, Patricia Lucille Hellams Edwards received her nursing degree from Greenville Technical College while raising her children. She spent 25 years at the Greenville Memorial Hospital System and two years as a traveling nurse before she started working for Bon Secours St. Francis - Greenville. In addition to her children, she is survived by 13 grandchildren and a set of triplets who are her godchildren.
In a statement to NBC News, Bon Secours St. Francis - Greenville extended its sympathy to Edwards' family and friends.
"We pray that they feel surrounded by love and support at this time and always," the hospital said.
Gamble plans to hold an outdoor candlelight vigil for her mother. In the meantime, she is ironing out the details of the scholarship she created Aug. 27 in her mother's name — something she believes she was called to do, especially as she has struggled to find a new profession after getting laid off from a software company a couple of years ago. The scholarship had only raised about $700 as of early Tuesday afternoon, but donors have pledged to give more.
"I've been trying to find my purpose, and I may have found it," Gamble said. "Carrying on my mom’s legacy."
"She was a go-beyond nurse," she added. "I want this scholarship to help those who are going to go above and beyond with patient care."