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Arkansas mother and daughter nurses gain international spotlight working in pandemic

Uchenna Onyia-Murphy and her daughter Ona Onyia return to Little Rock to share how their lives have changed within the past year. They discuss how their story has made national headlines. (Photo: KATV)
Uchenna Onyia-Murphy and her daughter Ona Onyia return to Little Rock to share how their lives have changed within the past year. They discuss how their story has made national headlines. (Photo: KATV)
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The pandemic has impacted so many people globally, from teachers, police officers, but probably most of all, those who work in the medical field.

Two Arkansas nurses at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic volunteered to work in New York City, at a time when the virus was the epicenter for the United States.

The two nurses, Uchenna Onyia-Murphy and Ona Onyia, are also mother and daughter who live in Little Rock. The duo has been working as traveling nurses for nearly a year. They say shortly after KATV spoke with them last year their story gained went viral.

Nearly 10 months have passed since Uchenna and Ona have been in their own home at the same time. It’s a moment the two say they almost forgot what it felt like since traveling for work to help with the fight against COVID-19.

"Overall, it has been Zoom calls and Facetimes, but it is nice to physically be with her in-person and back at home," Ona said.

Back in April 2020, Uchenna and Ona spoke with KATV about their traumatic experiences and how they are helping with the pandemic. Ona said that shortly after KATV spoke with them their story gained went viral.

"I wasn't expecting so much recognition for actually just doing my job, actually just doing what we do," Ona said.

Ona said she never imagined their story would get the attention of so many media outlets such as late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel Live. Uchenna said on Mother’s Day the two were acknowledged by CNN and it caught her off guard.

"I couldn't believe it though, someone actually called me to tell me oh you're on TV. I never expected that I was going to be there though. it's the grace of God, a message of God, I was really amazed and grateful to God," Uchenna said.

Ona said she lost count of the members of the press who reached out to them.

"ABC News reached out to us, Jimmy Kimmel reached out to us, the Ellen Show reached out to us, Essence Magazine reached out to us, the Red Table Talk reached out to us,” Ona said. “I know I'm forgetting some, so many people reached out to us that I can't really remember off of the top of my head."

Ona also said E! News and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon reached out to them.

In July 2020, the nurses received 'The Amazing Grace Award' by Essence Magazine. The two were honored during their annual Essence Festival event, which was held virtually because of COVID-19. The next month, InStyle Magazine labeled them as part of their top 50 essential workers in the country.

According to Uchenna, the most surprising recognition came from their home country in Nigeria. The two made the front cover of The Nation Newspaper, a platform that meant the world to Uchenna.

"Being an immigrant though, I came to this country, I started from scratch you know, and getting to the peak it's really amazing that your country would recognize you. I'm proud of you, you know," Uchenna said.

The two nurses said despite the international attention, the reality of how hard the pandemic has impacted the world remained the same. As of February 2021, in the United States, more than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19.

Last summer, both nurses transitioned to work in different cities in Texas. According to Uchenna and Ona, the number of patients who died from COVID, and exhaustion from working long hours has taken a toll on them. They said working six days a week can affect their mental health.

"Right now I face it all the time because where I work now they put me in the ED hold , have ICU there and they would have an emergency room so you're seeing people all the time," Uchenna said.

According to Ona, the life of a travel nurse does limit a work-life balance. She said one of the hardest moments about her job is when a COVID patient dies whose life she tried to save.

"You know every now and then I go into a panic attack at work, not often but every now and then there's times where I wish I could've saved that person," Ona said. "Even though you do everything you can this disease the way it attacks people, it's hard to even save them because we do everything we can for these patients."

The two nurses said they are hoping with the help of a COVD-19 vaccine that things will slowly turn around for everyone. Both recently received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

According to Uchenna and Ona, they are still continuing to save lives during this pandemic. They also share how thankful they are to encourage other travel nurses and inspire people across the country who have considered pursuing the nursing field because of their story.

"I go state by state, tell them where to go, get the forms, what school to apply to depending on what they want to do. I've always been like that," Uchenna said.

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Ona said once the number of COVID-19 patients has slowed down significantly she wants to continue her education in order to advance in other nursing field opportunities. According to Uchenna, she is hoping to return back to Little Rock and work as a nurse practitioner.

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