Hi there, and welcome to the first PHeature Friday, where we highlight various public health topics. As a public health professional myself, who is interested in health communications, I thought this was a perfect way to combine my passion for travel and public health. Our first guest for the series is my good friend, Sydney, who is a nurse in Canada. Today, she’s sharing her perspective on the pandemic as a frontline worker, specifically a nurse in Canada during COVID. Everything she shares is her viewpoint and does not necessarily represent the stance of the hospital she works for, nor is she giving anyone any medical advice! Alright – let’s get to it then:
1. Sydney, thank you for deciding to be part of PHeature Friday. Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into nursing?
Thank you Larissa for featuring me on your blog! I feel so honoured to be here. To start off, I am Sydney, a former swim teammate of Larissa’s and also roommate for the four years we attended Campbell University. I graduated Campbell with a biology degree and at the time was uncertain about what my next step was in my career. To my surprise I was accepted into an intense and competitive two-year program and received my Bachelor’s in Nursing. I started working as a casual surgical floor nurse, which was more or less just to get my foot in the door in the working world. However, I had no intention of staying there long as my true passion was to work in the operating room (OR). I received a job offer in the OR after working on the floor for six months, and have continued to work the last 2.5 years.
2. During nursing school, did it ever occur to you that you might be an essential worker during a pandemic?
I can honestly say that I never thought a pandemic such as COVID-19 would happen during my nursing career. I suppose I felt so focused on the tasks at hand, it never occurred to me that external extraneous factors would affect my job this much.
3. What was nursing like pre-COVID?
Nursing pre-COVID felt in some ways stressful due to the fact that I was a new grad with little experience dealing with acute and potentially life threatening situations. In nursing school, they never really taught us about the operating room, but I can safely say that it is a very different type of nursing that takes months (even years) to feel competent in. Working in an inner city trauma centre and a department that covers multiple specialties (including thoracics, bariatrics, general, orthopedics, trauma, neuro/spine, urology, plastics), there is so much to learn in this environment. Although some days are heard, overall I love the challenges that I face on a regular basis. I think it has changed me as a person and has made me think in ways I never thought possible.
4. How did that dynamic shift once COVID hit Canada?
Once COVID-19 came to Canada, everything changed and so drastically too. To this day, we are required to continuously wear masks throughout the hospital, complete daily COVID-19 screen tests, wear PPE during AGMPs (Aerosol Generating Medical Procedures). All patients are tested for Covid-19 and many are not cleared especially those on the emergency list and therefore treated as ‘Covid-presumptive’.
It is hard to explain in detail everything that is required when doing Covid cases in the OR but I will say it requires more time, resources and staff in order to prevent the potential spread of the virus. However, those types of changes have just become the new normal as time has gone by. We initially cancelled elective surgeries in anticipation mass increase of Covid positive patients, but as the numbers remained relatively low, we resumed full capacity throughout the summer and early fall season of 2020. In retrospect we were initially over-prepared which I don’t think was a bad thing. As the months of November and December approached, the numbers of hospitalizations and positive cases increased drastically and that is where we have really been feeling the burn out in the hospitals.
Suddenly we were running out of ICU beds and ICU had to expand into our recovery room. We shut down theatres again and cancelling elective cases not out of anticipation, but due to the fact that there was no longer space for these patients to go postoperatively.
Currently we are at half capacity in the OR, allowing some elective cases, but not nearly the usual amount. Some of my colleagues were and still are redeployed to the floor units and to ICU to help out other staff shortages throughout the hospital. One of my closest friends was redeployed to ICU, which again is a very different type of nursing that has added stress to her life and has also felt very isolating being thrown into a new environment not knowing anyone or how to perform in this new role.
5. Did your work environment experience any PPE shortages? How was that handled?
At one point, we experienced a PPE shortage of N95 masks for which I have had to be refitted twice in 2020 (normally only do once every two years) in order to fit into new masks that were coming in. Otherwise, I feel like the OR specifically has been very privileged in receiving unlimited PPE (I think partially due to the fact that we normally wear more PPE than other departments), however my understanding is that long term care facilities and other healthcare environments were short on PPE throughout Canada intermittently since the pandemic started.
6. What are your thoughts about how COVID is being handled in Canada?
I think in Canada and in most countries, there is no perfect way of handling a pandemic such as this one. There are definitely areas that could have been dealt with better. One example was when the pandemic first hit; the government was handing out money to anyone who applied for unemployment compensation. Now of course I fully support those who lost their jobs and especially local businesses, but I had heard of people who took advantage of this opportunity who really did not need to and at the end of the day, this is our tax money.
More on a provincial level, I am very disappointed in our UCP government. Back in November when the numbers were sky high, our hospitals were over filling, we were short staffed, and the government did nothing about the situation at hand. And because they were not proactive but reactive later on, we went into full lockdown throughout December and January; and currently still are. As a healthcare worker, I took the lockdown seriously and followed the restriction, but that also meant I missed seeing my family (some of whom I haven’t seen in over a year now).
The frustrating part of the situation is that even though I have been compliant with the rules and restrictions, let alone putting myself at risk everyday in the hospital, I know there are many people who are not compliant. I feel that those who have not followed the rules and restrictions and disregarded our health minister’s recommendations have been part of the problem not the solution.
Currently Alberta has decided to very gradually re-open society in various stages starting in February so long as hospitalizations continue to trend downwards. I am fully on board that the reopening will be based on number of hospitalizations and not just focused on the number of cases alone, as I do not want us (hospitals) to run at over-capacity. I am not entirely on board with the exact agenda with what is being opened during the different stages, but time will tell how this new implementation of Covid-19 restrictions plays out for us.
7. Being just north of the United States, do you have any thoughts on how COVID is being handled in the US?
I think that the US could have handled the pandemic better throughout 2020, but that is not to say Canada was perfect either at implementing certain plans. Without getting too political, I believe that those who purposely refused to wear a mask, participated in anti-mask protests, etc, was very disheartening to watch on the news. Being a person who sees very sick, innocent people die in front of me; I just think it is very selfish of those who have participated in those events. This is not speaking to the US alone, because that has happened here in Canada too, just on a smaller scale. I think the previous leader of America had a huge role in how the pandemic has been handled and from my perspective that was not in a constructive way. Due to my own personal burnout and exhaustion from the pandemic, recently I have stopped paying so much attention to what is going on in the States and just focused more on what directly affects my life.
8. As a nurse in Canada during COVID, what are your thoughts about a vaccine?
The COVID vaccine is something I think many healthcare workers in Canada are excited about. Now I have not done enough research to give scientific data or information on the vaccines, but I do believe it something positive for us. I understand there are risks in taking them, but so does every vaccine.
Sometimes I wonder how such effective vaccines were made so quickly, but with the evolution of medical technology and having big corporations all over the world sharing the same common goal, I am not surprised it took less than a year. I have been beyond grateful to have my first vaccine in January and I am hopeful that I will be receiving my second vaccine in February. I feel that my ‘reward’ for being a frontline line worker during the pandemic was being a priority in receiving the vaccine.
On the flip side, I wish I could give my vaccine to someone who truly needs it and is a high risk. The hope is that the healthcare workers who receive the vaccine can at least help prevent the outbreaks in the hospitals and less healthcare workers will be off sick thereby reducing our constant staff shortages. I truly hope that we can distribute and manufacture enough to vaccinate as many people as possible both on a national and global level.
9. What lessons have you learned during this whole experience?
Throughout this whole experience, I think that gratitude is a positive thing that I have felt. I have appreciated the hard work and resilience that my co-workers and friends have gone through together. Even though I have not seen many people this year and cancelled several travel plans, I have been able to stay connected with others through technology. I feel fortunate that my family have stayed safe and although many of my friends have tested positive from working in the hospitals, all have had overcome the virus with no long lasting effects. I also feel lucky in the department I work in compared to the floor units, long-term health centers, and ICU who have been more impacted by Covid-19. Like many others, I have adapted to life in a pandemic and been able to value the things in life I once took for granted.
10. As a Registered Nurse, do you have advice or suggestions for people during the unprecedented times?
My advice for others is to listen and follow the rules and regulations advised from their government/health administers. I have empathy for those families struggling with job loss, childcare problems, those who are grieving but that is the more reason for us to collectively adhere to the rules in order keep our numbers down. I am truly hopeful, even if pandemic becomes an endemic, that the vaccines will help prevent a repeat of what we all went through in 2020. It has not been easy for anyone globally and my heart goes out especially to those who have lost a loved one from COVID-19 and for those who have been hit harder from the pandemic. I hope as a society we can overcome this hurdle and come out stronger in the end.
Thank you so much Sydney for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your experience with us. It was definitely interesting to hear the perspective of a nurse in Canada during COVID. As the pandemic continues to ravage the world, please know you and all other frontline workers (hospital staff, long term facility staff, grocery store workers, etc.) are all in my thoughts and prayers. I thank you for helping others during this unimaginable time, and like you said, hopefully we will be able to get through this stronger.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read. Did you learn anything from Sydney sharing her experiences? Feel free to leave a comment!