Home COVID-19 Pandemic From the frontlines: a look into the lives of health-care workers a year into the pandemic

From the frontlines: a look into the lives of health-care workers a year into the pandemic

by Cassandra Dubiel

For my family and others living with health-care workers, March 2020 never stopped

Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

The moment my mom saw her hospital unit’s COVID-19 vaccine sign-up sheet she told me it felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. As she wrote her name down, she thought of my younger sister and I. 

From the moment COVID-19 took a hold of our lives, she told me her biggest fear has been that it would take her and she wouldn’t get the chance to watch us grow up. 

She’s approaching her 60s now, and while she’s always loved her job working as the nursing team leader of a stable care unit at a Toronto hospital, she’s felt like the past year has been a never-ending cycle of waking up, going to work, coming home exhausted and later than usual, before heading to bed and repeating the same thing all over again. 

She hasn’t been treating COVID-19 patients, but COVID-19 has repeatedly touched her floor. 

Her unit just came off its second COVID-19 outbreak in eight months on Sunday. In Ontario an outbreak in a hospital means the unit has had at least two COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period, where both cases could have reasonably been acquired in the hospital. At this point, I can almost guess whenever a patient or staff member on her unit has tested positive for COVID-19 just based on the stressed tone of her voice when she comes home. 

As of Jan. 15, 2021 data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information has found that in Ontario alone there have been 15,680 cases of COVID-19 amongst health-care workers, making up 6.8 per cent of the province’s total cases. In addition to that, 15 health-care workers have died, a death toll larger than all 12 other provinces and territories combined. 

My mom has watched as several of her staff have been moved to COVID-19 testing centres, dedicated COVID-19 units, or even the ICU. She said it’s difficult because the minute cases in the city are on the rise and hospitalizations begin to climb, talks of potentially redeploying staff to other parts of the hospital always tend to follow.

That experience is hardly unique to life at her hospital. For recent Ryerson nursing graduate and registered nurse Shelby Wylie-Hicks, working under pandemic procedures is all she’s really known. 

Wylie-Hicks works at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., where she moved in November for a position in forensic psychiatry. While there haven’t been any COVID-19 cases on her unit, several managers from her hospital were temporarily redeployed to help respond to an outbreak at a local long-term care facility. As a result, her manager was tasked with managing six different units. 

While there haven’t been any COVID-19 cases on Wylie-Hicks’ unit, she can vividly recall several scares where patients developed fevers and immediately needed to be isolated and tested. She’s extremely grateful COVID-19 hasn’t reached her floor, but she’s seen firsthand the effect it’s had on her patients. 

Her unit deals with late stage mental health treatment where patients are getting ready to be moved back into their communities, which could mean returning to their families, or awaiting a housing placement. 

“A lot of them actually have community privileges to leave the hospital,” she said. “But because our unit is on lockdown with COVID-19 that’s not really happening. They’re cooped up in the hospital getting really anxious.” 

For my mom, this concept of a unit lockdown has had a double meaning. Back in March just days after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, I remember her pulling our family aside and discussing where we’d have to set up a COVID-19 isolation suite in our home if her unit were to have an outbreak. It definitely wasn’t something I had ever envisioned, but a naive part of me believed it wasn’t actually going to happen. 

But by July what I initially thought was never going to happen, did. My mom’s unit was placed on COVID-19 outbreak and remained on it for almost an entire month, with multiple staff and patients affected. 

After the initial two week incubation period, new cases continued to pop up on the unit, so she and the rest of her staff were required to self-isolate. 

This meant she literally wasn’t allowed to be in the same room as the rest of us. I remember staring at the sheet of instructions she brought home in utter disbelief as she told us we were all expected to treat her as if she actually had COVID-19, in spite of her going to get tested every couple days. 

She was to wear a mask whenever she was even remotely near any of us, she wasn’t to eat with us, and as for sleeping, since our house has only three bedrooms, we had to transform our living room into a makeshift bedroom to comply with the self-isolation order. 

It felt like some kind of cruel joke to watch as someone I love had to essentially become a stranger for two weeks all because of COVID-19, all while people enjoyed their summer “break from the pandemic” and lived in another reality. 

I can remember a few days where I said no more than a couple words to her before she headed off to our living room to rest after a long day’s work. It makes me sad to think that a lot of these days just started to blend together to a point where my mom’s isolation felt like a never-ending new normal. 

My 21st birthday was during the final days of her isolation. While we’ve never been the type of family that puts much weight into birthdays, I don’t think I ever could have predicted that my card would be predominantly filled with apologies for a lack of gifts because my mom wasn’t allowed to go anywhere but directly to and from work. 

I told her it was something she definitely didn’t need to apologize for, and it made me teary-eyed to even think she felt like she needed to. 

Thankfully the next several days passed with no further COVID-19 cases in my mom’s unit, putting that nightmarish period of isolation to an end. But I think what all of us feared the most was having to watch her go through that again. 

Hearing that she’d be receiving the vaccine back in January was the first time in 11 months when I felt like normalcy might actually be on the horizon. 

She’s since received her two doses and while her unit did once again find itself on outbreak from Feb. 11 to Feb. 28,  thankfully with no further transmission she won’t need to self-isolate again. But as we slowly approach a year of living in this pandemic I can’t help but think about how much she and her fellow health-care workers have given up. 

For my mom, from the onset of the pandemic she’s told me that no matter what she goes through, all she wants is for us to come out on the other side safe and healthy, and for the first time in almost a year, I finally feel like that’s a possibility. 

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