Essential Worker

When Tiffany Mills graduated from the University of Louisville earlier this month with her bachelor’s degree in nursing, she observed the special occasion in typical fashion. 

She went back to work at the hospital.  

“I didn’t really celebrate, because I had to work,” said Mills, a nurse technician at the University of Louisville Hospital.

Mills has served her community on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a nurse tech, she’s spent countless hours donning personal protective equipment to see sick and symptomatic patients. She’s watched her colleagues burn out from exhaustion and distress — and yet continue showing up to work when they were needed most. And she’s felt frustration when citizens disregard public health measures like universal mask wearing.

But even by the high standards of essential workers, Mills is something of a standout. While working full-time as a nurse tech, the 24-year-old was also a full-time student, completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisville. 

The nursing curriculum is notoriously rigorous, and Mills sometimes stayed up all night to study. Her sense of initiative isn’t new. During one particularly punishing semester, she was living in Frankfort, taking day classes in Louisville, and working a full-time evening shift in Lexington. After her shift ended at midnight, she’d amble back to Frankfort to catch a few hours of sleep before waking up early the next morning to do it all over again.

“I don’t even know what a vacation is,” Mills joked. “Even as busy as I am, I try to never half-ass anything. In my mind, this is what I signed up for; no one made me do this. So I need to give 110%.”

Tiffany Mills / University of Louisville

Tiffany Mills, 24, in full personal protective equipment as part of clinical work at the the University of Louisville, where she graduated in December with a bachelor’s in nursing.

 

The Future Of Ky. Nursing

Mills was recently honored as the Student Nurse of the Year by the Kentucky Nurses Association. The award recognized her leadership and civic engagement, including as chapter president of the Kentucky Association of Nursing Students, academic liaison for the Student Government Association nursing student council, a member of the National Student Nurses’ Association and Black Student Nurses Association, and a volunteer with the Louisville Youth Group and the Center for Women and Families.

Atom Murphy, a volunteer coordinator at the nonprofit Louisville Youth Group, a hub for local LGBT youth, said one of Mills’ talents is recruiting fellow nursing students to volunteer, including many who had never heard of the organization before. “She leads these groups to such a level that I only have to give them a task and they organize themselves to what they need to do,” Murphy said

Rebecca Gesler, an assistant professor at U of L’s School of Nursing, said Mills is the pride of the nursing school — a rare student who commands respect for her abilities and her character.

“In my 22 years of teaching, I’m not sure I’ve seen a student as extraordinary as Tiffany,” said Gesler, who believes Mills is destined to become a leader in the field. “We’re going to hear from her again and again and again.”

Between full-time work and full-time studies, Mills still found the time to attend protests after the police killing of Breonna Taylor. A young Black woman working in health care, Mills has much in common with Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was killed by Louisville Metro Police in a March raid on her apartment.

To Mills, the racial justice movement was not entirely dissimilar to the everyday work practiced by doctors and nurses in hospitals. Just as essential health care workers help and heal strangers, the street protesters in Louisville created an impromptu community of care she found moving. 

“I feel like it was empowering being around other like-minded people, seeing how each one of us cared for one another,” said Mills, “and we didn’t even know each other.”

From Appalachia To The City

Mills hails from Irvine, Ky., a small mountain town that’s 99% white. Although she felt Irvine was “a very safe place to be” and thinks the town shaped her for the better, she itched for life in a bigger city. 

She also saw how life there was harder for people of color. “It proved to be difficult to get a job there, looking the way that I look,” she said. “It made me grow tougher skin and learn how to handle those types of things.”

She wants to serve as an example for other young Black women who might not know any professionals in health care.

“For the younger Black girls and Black boys that want to pursue anything in the field or nursing, I love being a role model,” she said. “I believe representation is everything.”

Behind every essential worker is an essential support network. Mills credits her mother, siblings, and academic mentors for sustaining her through the tough moments.

At Estill County High School, where she first considered becoming a nurse, Mills is remembered for her intellect and electric personality. Her peers voted her to have the “best sense of humor” in her class.

After a WFPL reporter reached out to a former teacher for comment, almost a dozen more lined up to brag and gush about their former student.

“It’s a rare personality. She was very uplifting to everyone,” said Victoria Barnett, Mills’ geometry and physics teacher, who also helped coach her in softball. “She had an enthusiasm that spread to everyone.”

Danny Wood, a retired U.S. history teacher at ECHS, remembers Mills as an “outstanding student” known for her “megawatt smile and obvious intelligence.” 

“I always sensed in her a drive, a quality that once she set her sights on something she would not be denied,” said Woods, who is married to a former ICU nurse and lauds Mills’ decision to enter health care.

As the oldest of four siblings, Mills considers herself a natural caregiver. Solving tough problems was one of the reasons she first became interested in nursing, a career that rewards personal growth and ambition.

“You can never be bored,” she said. “If you get tired working at the bedside, you can go work at a clinic, or you can go back to school and get a master’s or a doctorate and either become a nurse practitioner or a researcher.”   

Soon she’ll start a new role in the University of Louisville Hospital’s burn unit, the only one in the state. But first, she and the entire health care system will have to endure a few more punishing months of COVID-19. 

“Everyone’s just tired,” Mills said. 

For her part, she remains undeterred. Her accolades and new degree feel too new, and almost surreal. “It’ll all really settle in when I buy those blue scrubs for the first time.”

Mindy Fulner