8 N.J. women whose lives have been upended by the COVID pandemic

A teacher working remotely while also trying desperately to protect her elderly mother. A restaurant owner who watched business dry up.

A doctor treating a tsunami of COVID-19 patients, including some from her own family. A child welfare worker who worries about the kids she’s paid to help, and the ones she leaves at home.

The coronavirus pandemic has completely upended the lives of millions of women in New Jersey. Even more so for the ones who have suffered an immense loss — their jobs, their loved ones, their livelihood.

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 2.4 million women in the United States have left the workforce since the pandemic began, compared to 1.8 million men. And the mental health toll — 57 percent of women say their mental health is suffering compared to 44 percent of men, according to at least one study — is deepening the gender divide.

It’s been one year since the first coronavirus cases were identified in New Jersey. One year since 1.4 million school children were sent home for their own safety. One year since businesses were shuttered and unemployment numbers began to skyrocket.

To mark those anniversaries, to emphasize the toll they’ve taken, and to honor Women’s History Month — history that’s being written as we speak — NJ Advance Media interviewed eight women to tell their stories of how their lives have been fully altered by the pandemic.

But the stories don’t end there. We know countless numbers of other women in the Garden State are continuing to struggle with the mental load of trying to hold it all together. We want to hear your stories. Tell us about them here and read these eight women’s stories below.

Carla Draper

Carla Draper, left, of Highland Park with her mother Olimpia Micheli. Draper is a Highland Park teacher who caring for her elderly 93 year-old mother who lives next door. Thursday, March 4, 2021 Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

A paraprofessional from Highland Park school district, caretaker of her parents

Carla Draper hasn’t had to deal with one pandemic hardship, she’d had to deal with almost all of them.

The paraprofessional from Highland Park has had to juggle teaching prekindergarten remotely, running an after-school care program, caring for her 93-year-old mother, helping a high schooler through remote learning and caring for a college student who contracted the virus.

“It’s hard to be able to find time to do anything to take care of yourself because what usually happens is, by the time I get my downtime and do something that I want to do, it’s very late, so I tend to stay up late and have to get up early,” Draper said.

When her school district first switched to remote, lessons were asynchronous and after school was canceled, giving Draper time to both work and take care of her mother. But when schools opened for in-person learning in October, she was still taking care of her mom, plus the added responsibility of real-time learning and running after school.

“I realized that in that time I let other things go. You know, like, that was the priority. I let stuff pile up in the house,” Draper said. “It was tough, but it was a blessing to be able to take care of her.”

As she waits to get vaccinated, the thought of the virus spreading amongst her students, or of her giving it to her mom, weighs on her, she said.

There have still been silver linings, she says. Having her college-aged daughter home, and keeping her mom healthy. Staying employed and keeping her dog by her side as she worked.

“Yeah (the pandemic) was scary, but man, that silver lining was being able to take care of my family,” Draper said.

—By Katie Kausch

Carole DuBois owner of Blue Print Cafe in Newark

Carole DuBois is the owner of Blueprint Cafe in Newark located in the Ironbound area. Thursday, March 4, 2021. Newark, N.J. USA (Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media) Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media

Owner of 2 construction companies and a cafe in Newark

Carole Dubois was hit on both business fronts. Her construction business slowed when the pandemic hit — development projects scaled back, tenants couldn’t pay rent. And the Newark restaurant she started 4 years, Blueprint Cafe Lounge, that was just becoming more profitable, faced a challenge of keeping its tight-knit group of workers employed.

“Keeping staff is very important for us because we’re like a family-based company,” said Dubois, 40. “Keeping team spirit was very important.”

Regulars stopped coming in for vegan french toast or Blueprint’s cheesesteak sandwiches. They instead started ordering takeout on third-party delivery apps, which take a portion of profit from the restaurant owner.

Newark Working Kitchens, an Audible program, was a lifeline for Dubois’ cafe, she said. Audible paid restaurants like Dubois’ to make meals that were delivered to those in low-income senior housing.

She immigrated from the west coast of Africa to Newark when she was about 16 and lived there for about 15 years. She now lives in Woodbridge with her son.

Construction, however, is what inspired her to start a cafe. She was always on the lookout for a good meal while talking to clients about projects, so she thought why not bring turn a building she owned into an eatery.

She gets a sense of pride in owning the cafe, even if it’s been hard work this past year, and especially as the mayor put even tighter restrictions in place, like asking non-essential businesses to close on Monday, to slow the rapid virus growth in New Jersey’s largest city.

“Yes, it was a constraint,” she noted. “But I believe the administration put some guidelines in to make it safer and now it’s allowing us to reopen in a better way.”

“I’ll tell you what, running a cafe is much more difficult than building a four or five star building,” she said with a laugh.

—By Rebecca Panico

Bindu Balani Women Project

Portrait of Dr. Bindu Balani at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack on Wednesday March 3, 2021John Jones | For NJ Advance Media

Infectious disease specialist at Hackensack University Medical Center

She hasn’t admitted it before, but Dr. Bindu Balani was scared. Scared of transmitting the virus to others in the hospital “but also to my family,” she said, pausing to reflect. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually said that before, but that was always the fear.”

Before COVID-19, Balani — an infectious disease specialist at Hackensack University Medical Center — was on call evenings, but could spend time with her family, attempt a little gardening, watch Bollywood films.

Then came chaos. Meetings to create COVID-19 protocols. Calls with the CDC. Treating the waves of patients.

“We were putting in close to 16 to 18 hours a day. Just go home, shower, change, sleep, come back again,” said Balani, 49, of Woodcliff Lake.

In April, COVID-19 hit almost everyone in her household — including Balani, her husband, her mother-in-law, and one of her two teenage kids. There was a lot of worrying and monitoring each other’s oxygen levels, but they all recovered.

But the emotional toll weighed heavily: seeing families with multiple members hospitalized, hoping experimental treatments would save them, knowing sometimes they would not.

“Just talking about it now, it’s more emotional than it was then,” she said. “I think at that time, we were just, ‘get going, next day, next day, next day.’”

She stayed tough through the hard moments, but it was the happy ones — when staff applauded as COVID-19 patients were discharged — that brought her to tears.

“It was just too good. It was amazing to see them survive and leave the hospital, and later we get these letters from them,” Balani said. “That part has really helped us get going, to the next step forward.”

—By Rebecca Everett

Blogger Carly A. Riordan

Blogger Carly A. Riordan, at home in Madison, NJ. 3/1/2021Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media

A lifestyle blogger from Madison who didn’t put life’s milestones on hold

When so much of the world felt like it was standing still, Carly Riordan made the conscious decision to keep moving forward.

The longtime lifestyle blogger got engaged to her then-boyfriend Mike in June, well aware the pandemic uncertainty wouldn’t let up anytime soon— so the couple began planning a wedding.

“We don’t want to wait. There are so many unknowns in life, and I think the pandemic almost highlighted how much we don’t have control over things,” Riordan said.

But it wasn’t without challenges as she had to grapple with the reality of getting married in a pandemic. In order to keep the wedding safe, the guest list was as small as possible, meaning some of the couple’s closest friends couldn’t come. All the food was home-cooked, and a DJ was foregone in favor of an iPhone and speakers.

And after the wedding,
the couple began trying to start a family. The timing might not have been perfect, but there was no telling how long it might take to conceive, Riordan said. She announced her pregnancy in February.

“I think the hardest part has been the isolation because now that I am pregnant I feel like, well, I have to think about someone else’s well-being,” Riordan said, adding she had tightened up her quarantine measures again and is unable to visit her parents in Florida.

Despite the hardships, Riordan says she’s focused on what she has to be thankful for, like a house with a backyard, and her friends and growing family.

“Just really appreciating those moments (with people) and not assuming that they’re always going to be there, because those good moments might not always be there,” she said. “Taking things as they come in, celebrating the good.”

—By Katie Kausch

Michelle Maldonado

Michelle Maldonado, of Trenton, is a child welfare worker. When the day is done, she goes home to her three children (left to right) Amaliya Carmona, age 7, Sebastian Maldonado, age 2 and Zoila King, age 6. March 3,2021 Amanda Brown| For NJ Advance Media

Child welfare worker from Trenton and mother of 3

Hershey almonds are what counts for luxury in the life of Michelle Maldonado. Self-care, like going to get her nails done, doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

Maldonado, a resident of Trenton, balances a full-time career as a child welfare worker with her second full-time job as a single mother raising three young children: one son, 2, and two daughters, 6 and 7 who are learning remotely.

She has also taken in her 62-year-old mother, who has a disability.

How does she balance it all? That’s a “great question,” she said.

“I seek support from family and friends for sure, but it’s definitely allocating time to what’s most important,” Maldonado said, like making sure her daughter learns her ABCs.

Fulfilling her financial obligations, caring for her elderly mother, and reserving enough time each day to spend with her three children — at times, it’s all “become too much.”

“That’s the time where you have to step back, even if it just means 15 minutes in the car before you go into the house to cook dinner and deal with your life at home, or 10 minutes in the car before work — before you face that day,” Maldonado said.

Part of what drives her to get out of bed each morning is her career of aiding at-risk and homeless youth and its influence upon her life as a mother.

“Seeing the success in my children, and then my work children — here I am molding these young children, my children at home, and I want them to be better than what I could ever be. And at work I get the honor of someone allowing me in their life and helping them either through homelessness or whatever it is they’re experiencing,” Maldonado said.

“Seeing them being successful in the end is what gets me through.”

—By Caroline Fassett


Lata Annayya, right, and her husband, Sunny Anand, of Ringoes, New Jersey. Annayya battled COVID-19 for nearly three months in 2020. 3/2/2021Keith A. Muccilli | For NJ Advance Media

A woman from Ringoes who almost lost everything after 3 months in a coma

Lata Annayya struggles to be the person she was before COVID-19 took three months of her life away — time she spent in a medical coma, on a ventilator and in two different hospitals, 200 miles away from her husband.

Before, she was a party host, active, busy and independent. Now, she said she battles brain fog and damage to her vocal cords and lungs. She requires oxygen 24/7. She suffers from high blood pressure, fatigue, anxiety, panic attacks, sleeplessness.

When she regained consciousness in June, Annayya, 59, of Ringoes, was shocked to hear all she had been through. Her husband recovered quickly from the virus, but she didn’t and he came to the hospital daily, begging to see her. They were childhood sweethearts who eloped in India in 1985 before moving to the U.S.

“My husband is like a gardener,” she says. “He nurtured me like a flower — and he still does.”

But she got her first dose of the vaccine recently. Her husband drove her to Cape May, the only place she could secure an appointment.

“It was a gorgeous day. He took me to see the ocean, and I felt alive for the first time in so long.”

She writes down her thoughts to help her process her journey:

“Will I ever be back to my old self?” she wonders. “One thing I do know is there will be a new generation of post-COVID survivors carrying the burden of the devastation … [who] will have a new respect for life, a new self-respect for themselves, for the strength they drew to battle alone.”

—By Jessica Remo

Alisaa Dirato, living statue in Atlantic City, March 2, 2021

Alissa Dirato poses for a photo while holding a garment bag containing one of her living statue costumes near Caesars Casino on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Before the pandemic Dirato worked as a living statue in various casinos in Atlantic City. Joe Warner | For NJ Advance Media

A small business gig worker in Atlantic City

Alissa Dirato watched as her gigs disappeared. Quickly, fear crept in. How would she pay for rent and food?

Dirato, who started her body art and live art performance business when she was 16, landed an office job at a manufacturing company to support herself in April, but worried her small business — her ultimate passion — would never get back on track. The usual venues she booked—child birthday parties, festivals, weddings and casinos in Atlantic City — were all being canceled as the government placed restrictions on large gatherings.

“My business is my life. If you want to talk about people who have COVID depression for different reasons… I’m crying at night,” said Dirato, a 39-year-old Galloway resident.

She says she emptied about $30,000 from her business savings account and won’t see any return on it — it was spent on rent, investments in what ended up being a canceled 2020 season, and expenses to grow her business in the bridal market that began before the pandemic hit.

Slowly, she’s starting to have moments of hope. She’s beginning to have conversations about possible gigs with event planners again. But even those are up in the air because predicting gathering limits in the coming months isn’t possible.

“Now that things are slowly starting to open back up… the trick is knowing whether those events will cancel,” Dirato said. “If you feel like you’re at this alone and you have nowhere to go, there are people exactly like you experiencing the same struggle.”

—By Avalon Zoppo

Maritza Beniquez, ER Nurse

Maritza Beniquez, ER Nurse, University Hospital, Newark, NJ. 03/03/2021Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media

An emergency room nurse at University Hospital in Newark

Maritza Beniquez is now hopeful for the future.

But if you asked her a year ago, the answer would have been different.

An emergency room nurse at University Hospital in Newark, she is on the frontlines of the pandemic. It’s been a “nightmare,” with overlapping crises of isolation, exhaustion, and sadness, she said.

“When you see this level of devastation and destruction, I could’ve chosen to say, ‘Hey, you know what? This is too scary for me, I’m going to stay home,’ but I felt this sense of responsibility to be there,” Beniquez said.

Beniquez dreamed of being a nurse since childhood, but she couldn’t afford nursing school and was responsible for raising three kids, so she was forced to push the goal aside. She spent more than a decade in healthcare management before returning to school at 44 years old to become a nurse.

Sacrifices were made, but Beniquez completed her schooling and successfully reinvented herself. She’s worked at the hospital for the past five years, but she said the pandemic’s arrival was the scariest thing she’s experienced.

“This is where that innate love of humanity comes in and you can choose to duck and hide or you can choose to face your fears head on,” she said.

Beniquez, who resides in predominantly Hispanic Union City, felt secure in her faith and the hospital staff’s dedication to staying educated. They read the news often, staying updated on how best to protect themselves and their patients.

Then, she became the first person in the state to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on her 56th birthday.

The vaccine’s arrival was like “hearing angels harping over your head,” Beniquez said.

She recently spent time with family in Puerto Rico and is hopeful for the day she reunites with friends without being afraid of getting them sick.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever been this happy to hold my family,” she said.

—By Brianna Kudisch

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