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A health care worker’s experience on the front lines fighting COVID-19

Q&A with a Toronto-based Emergency Room Registered Nurse*

*For privacy reasons, they have asked to remain anonymous

What was a typical day like for you before the COVID-19 pandemic, and how has the outbreak affected your day-to-day work?

It’s definitely changed it quite a bit. I’m not able to socialize as much, so all I do is go to work, come home, and sleep, and then I’m back at work again. A lot of the nurses who work with me like to socialize outside of work. We need to get our mind off of work sometimes, and we’re finding that it’s hard to do that right now. We’re surrounded by the news and the media, and any time we speak to somebody at work, it’s always about COVID-19. So right now, things are getting a little overwhelming for us and there’s a lot of frustration going around.

What is the atmosphere like among your colleagues?

It’s mixed. We have this teamwork going on and group camaraderie where we’re all helping each other out, so that’s helping with the moral support. But I also think there’s been a fear going around with people who are coming in now to the hospital being sicker, and then thinking about us going to our own families and potentially carrying something — because you can be asymptomatic — and then transferring that over to them. There’s a lot of fear where we don’t know if we’re safe enough to see anybody else, so most of us have isolated ourselves from everybody.

It’s hard for people who have families at home because now they’re stuck in a room, so the atmosphere when we come to work is that we appreciate that little bit of socialization and moral support from each other. Everyone has been feeling a little bit overwhelmed as time goes on because, while it’s great that people are appreciating us, it’s hard to see some people not following protocols. [We] feel like we can’t see our families or do anything but work, and yet there are people who are not taking this seriously.

How has this impacted you emotionally?

Up until last week, I was still feeling like I was making a difference and there’s a purpose to what I’m doing. But I think as time goes on and every day there are new changes that are happening in the healthcare system, in the hospitals, it’s definitely getting a little hard to keep up emotionally without having that support system of my family, my friends, [or] even working out. It’s taking a toll on me. When I go into work and hear things like we need to ration our supplies or feed off the fear that someone else might be feeling, I’ve come home and felt really low and felt a little disposable. But I think my colleagues have been amazing in that we’ve been holding each other up, and we’ve been talking to each other and being each other’s support systems. That’s been very helpful.

How has this impacted your family life?

I live alone like a lot of my colleagues, and I have not been able to go see my family in over a month now. So that’s been tough. We’re very close, but I couldn’t get myself to go over there and put them at risk in any way considering that anyone working in the hospital right now is high risk. I have a grandma who’s 80+ and does have respiratory issues, so that’s a big part of why I won’t be able to go home for the next month or two.

What do you feel optimistic about right now?

On social media, there’s a lot going on with donations of personal protective equipment, and any time someone says anything where we’re being appreciated or words of moral support, I feel optimistic. I think those little things really matter because sometimes I don’t realize that I’m not feeling well until someone comes up to me and says “thank you” or “we’ll get through it”.  My colleagues [have been] bringing in food or, even if we don’t feel like it, just joking around. That makes me feel very optimistic. It helps take my mind off everything that’s going on. Also, the people who have been following protocols and making sure other people do it as well make me feel optimistic that there are a lot of people out there who do understand the consequence and the severity of this and are helping us help other people. That makes me feel very good.

What is most worrying to you?

The uncertainty about how bad things are going to get before it gets better. Also, I think one of the biggest things is the different information that’s out there for people, especially people who don’t work in the healthcare system who are using equipment outside that doesn’t need to be used outside. For example, an N95 mask is only for healthcare providers, but on my commute to work, I see people on the streets wearing gloves and an N95. [They’re] using the gloves to touch their face still, and that’s something that worries me because that’s not how you can stop the virus from spreading. I think the only way the virus can be stopped is if you actually stay at home, or if you do go outside, you sanitize your hands. In conversations with my colleagues, everybody is noticing this when [they] go to the grocery stores. I don’t think people are understanding how to maintain that hygiene and how to self-isolate properly.

Are you doing anything for your mental health? If so, what?

I’ve recently taken up running outside. I couldn’t sleep without having anything to do and had so much energy, so I decided to run in the mornings when it’s nice and quiet and there’s nobody there. I’ve been trying to do yoga at home before bed and after waking up. That’s been really helpful. I’ve gotten more into video calling. I’m not a phone or a technology person at all, but I’m getting into Zoom and having a video call with my friends just to keep myself [social].

Where are you finding moments of joy in your day?

We love it when we get free food! That’s definitely a moment of joy. I like my commute to work because I get a little bit of fresh air, and it gives me time outside my house and outside the hospital. [I also enjoy] meditating and doing yoga.

What is inspiring you or giving you hope right now?

I’m very inspired by my fellow nurse colleagues and doctors, and everybody who’s working [in] essential services right now because everyone is putting their families at risk and going to work and doing the best that they can. Even within my colleagues, there are some nurses and doctors who are so passionate about everything that’s going on, and they advocate for each other, and that’s very inspiring to me. That’s the best thing that I could ask for right now.

What advice would you give to other health care workers like you who are at the front lines?

Keep checking in with yourself. Now that all we do is work all the time, it’s really [easy] to get absorbed in the negativity or the media outlets. It gets overwhelming and scary and we don’t necessarily realize it right away. So checking in with myself has been a great way to see how I’m feeling emotionally, mentally, and to prepare myself to go back to work the next day.