CURE Pandemic Profiles: A Time to Grow

For survivor Michele Grimes, time at home during the pandemic fosters an opportunity for reflection and growth.

Accepting the reality of COVID-19 reminded Michele Grimes of coming to terms with her breast cancer diagnosis.

“I really didn’t understand the disease: how one day we could be OK, and within a matter of hours, our lives were changing right before us,” she said of the pandemic and shutdown of public life. “It was hard for me to process.”

Slowing down was difficult for the nearly 58-year-old social worker, who thrives on face-to-face contact with those she helps as director of senior services at the nonprofit Bridge Street Development Corp. in Brooklyn, N.Y. But, just as she has in coping with her metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, she learned to not only to live with the change but turn it into an opportunity. In addition to finding ways to engage with clients through telephone check-ins and virtual programs, Grimes has used her time at home for reflection.

She recommends that others who are immunocompromised and staying home to avoid COVID-19 follow her lead. “This a good time to reflect on who it is that you are and what it is that you want to do,” she says. “Sometimes we get stuck, so how do we use this experience to not be stuck but to grow? It’s been a serious time of growth and development for me in finding that place of just being happy.”

Grimes, who is also an associate minister at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, says she felt naturally called to social work: “I love helping people and serving.”

At Bridge Street, which provides civic and economic opportunities to people with low and moderate incomes, Grimes manages a building of 125 senior citizens and oversees programs that are open to older people throughout the community. “Maybe a senior needs food stamps or public benefits, and we help them,” she says. “We sign them up for different classes. We do a lot with a very small staff, but we make a huge impact in the community. We can see 1,000 to 1,500 seniors in a year.”

When she was told to close her program, “it was hard for me,” Grimes recalls through tears. “I felt like I was abandoning my job.” Working remotely called for new strategies. “We had to figure out a way to engage people so no one felt isolated, so we started calling everybody to do weekly check-ins. If they needed food, we hooked them up with resources in the community,” she says. “We were already a family, but during this pandemic, we became closer.”

Since her office closed in mid-March, Grimes has stayed inside her Brooklyn home, which she shares with her mother, daughter, son, grandson and two sisters. The exception: She travels to Philadelphia’s Cancer Treatment Centers of America to treat the illness she’s been fighting for eight years. Two and a half years ago, she says, her journey shifted when she received a diagnosis of metastatic disease, which has spread to her liver, lung, pelvic bone and brain.

Now, battling both isolation and cancer, Grimes has turned to prayer and meditation, practices that she describes in a book she is writing.

“When I (received my diagnosis), it changed my life,” she says. “It made me realize we only have one life, and you can’t be afraid to live it and take risks. I didn’t feel I had to be a people pleaser anymore or do what people expected.” That change in perspective brought an epiphany: “(I was) no longer interested in relationships with men,” she says. “That was my choice because I wanted to experience a different level of freedom.”

She also became more aware of emotional drains. “We waste a lot of time being angry,” she says. “We have to be nice to each other. It doesn’t cost anything to do that or to go out of your way to help people, and it’s good for the soul.”

Throughout the pandemic, Grimes has thought about the friends she has lost to cancer and chosen not to complain. Rather, she has been inspired to persevere by the love of the people in her life, including her pastor, the Rev. Alicia Bailey, who regularly reminds her to acknowledge joy. With that in mind, Grimes is looking not only within but also ahead. Although she recently made the decision to start at-home hospice care to improve her quality of life, she dreams of returning to her office and resuming her frequent travels with a trip to the Philippines.

“This is a time of reflection for us and what it is that we’re going to do differently when we come out of this,” she says. “It’s a good time to just be there for each other, to look at your family relationships and be mindful of those who are around you.

“Live life, be happy, and don’t forget to honor the humanity of each person we greet daily.”

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