Drawing of Susan Vela
Illustration by Molly OIeson

Think about this: If you are disabled and blind, you can’t tell if people are wearing their masks.

If you are disabled and blind, you risk stepping off the sidewalk to avoid a loud-talking, non-masked person.

If you are disabled and blind, and riding the 14-Mission or the 9-San Bruno every day, as Susan Vela does, you sure overhear a lot of conflicts over masks, as she tells it:

“Those buses were not without their problems before COVID. And now, you must wear masks to board the bus, but people get into fights about it. They use all kinds of profanity. Oh, I tell you, it’s a regular soap opera, like Days of Our Lives.  The bus driver will stop the bus right in its tracks and say, ‘We are not moving till you put on your mask or get off the bus.’ I just sit there and say a little prayer, ‘Just get me home, just get me home.’ COVID has definitely made me more vulnerable.”

Vela, whose search for a job despite her disabilities was chronicled in Mission Local in February and July 2019, has been a volunteer and then a paid worker at General Hospital for over 13 years. She rides the 14, 14R or the 9 from her Tenderloin supported housing hotel to her post in the hospital lobby.

Despite undergoing emergency surgery on January 15, followed by a nine-day stay in her beloved General Hospital and a six-week rehab at a post-acute care facility, Vela returned to her job as a patient ambassador on March 24.

“Before COVID, I would give out information and escort patients to wherever they needed to get in the hospital. After COVID they trained me for a few days to stamp passes for staff. They had started to screen staff by taking their temperatures and asking the usual questions about symptoms. They taught me to ask the questions, even printed them out in extremely large print, like 72 inches. It didn’t take me long to memorize the screening questions. But then they had me go back to being a Way Finder. I help the patients find their way.”

Vela never thought about not coming to work, despite the pandemic, despite the 9 San Bruno.

“It is the most suitable job for me. I love being a Wayfinding Patient Ambassador. Me, I show them the Way to San Jose, like the song says. I love to help the little children coming in with their parents to go to pediatrics. I take an absolute interest for the ladies who come to the Women’s Options clinic. Because I know they are very nervous. I try to cheer them up a little bit when I take them up to the 6th floor, I stay with them after I press the buzzer, until the nurse comes in to let them in. Occasionally I get sandwiches from the hospital kitchen and bring them to the One Medicine patients. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would deliver sandwiches over there when patients asked for food cause they have long waits.”

Vela goes back and forth between present and past tense when describing her job, because it ended just four days ago.

Her position as a Patient Ambassador was funded through an Office of Economic and Workforce Development program called Jobs Now. Her official title was Public Service Trainee. But funding ended July 31.

“They gave me such a goodbye party, all the staff. They gave me such a sendoff. They gave me presents and cards, and even a book of my favorite singer, Michael Bublé.

“But I miss working terribly, terribly, now with COVID, there are so many things I can’t do that it makes not going to work harder.”

She stops talking for a second, and then in a rush she lists what COVID-19 has taken.

“I miss going to all the little funky shops I used to go and browse for treasures, like Buffalo Exchange or Crossroads Trading Company. I miss the fresh salads and delicious soups I used to get at St. Martin De Porres on 16th and Potrero. It was a great safe place for nutritious meals ’til COVID closed it down.  I even miss eating at my favorite greasy spoon diner on Golden Gate.”

Vela thinks for a minute, and adds, “I miss haircuts. I really really miss haircuts. AND I MISS MOVIES!”

Vela, who turns 60 this year, almost squeals:

“I miss going to movies and listening to the soundtracks. I love thrillers and scary movies and dancing in the aisles to musicals.  I miss pigging out on buttery popcorn even when it would fly all over my lap when I get scared.

“These days, I eat a lot of bagged popcorn I get at the Dollar Store, (cause anything to do with the microwave makes me a little afraid).

“I get salads from SUBWAY now. And Chef Boyardee raviolis.”

Vela plans to be out there looking for work when the pandemic subsides. For now, she knows she is safer at home, and she finds joy in dancing to her idol, Michael Bublé.

“I have 23 posters of Michael Bublé. He is my hero. I dance to him every day, all kinds of freestyle. I dance jazz and tap all around the house.  I have a toy microphone. I sing into like I am singing on ‘American Idol,’ or as if I were Old Blue Eyes himself.  Sometimes I picture myself on, well, not ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but ‘Susan’s Doing Pretty OK!’”

Read: I can get anyone hired – except Susan Vela

Read: Susan Vela gets a job.

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