Front-line health workers in Canada look back on ‘rollercoaster’ year of COVID-19

Challenging. Terrifying. Discouraging. Rollercoaster.

These are just a few of the words used by front-line health-care workers across Canada to describe the coronavirus pandemic.

From long hours at work, to a constant and increased risk of COVID-19 infection, to difficult video calls with families of dying patients, to isolation from their loved ones, it has been a year unlike any other for health-care workers around the world.

Read more: ‘It was a shocker’ — Front-line health-care worker’s family hit by COVID-19

In Canada, more than 65,000 health-care workers have been infected with COVID-19 and 24 have died from the disease, as of Jan. 15, according to a recent report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI).

In the early days of the pandemic, there were shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a lack of infection control measures in the workplace adding to the challenges for the front-line staff.

Now, as vaccines continue to roll out, many are seeing this as a light at end of the tunnel, but admit that the fight is far from over.

As we approach one year of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), front-line workers – doctors, nurses and a paramedic – share their experiences with Global News about what life has been like tackling the novel coronavirus over the past 12 months.

Dr. Shazma Mithani

‘I definitely don’t think we are out of hot water yet,’ said Mithani. Photo provided by Shazma Mithani

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike anything Dr. Shazma Mithani has experienced in her seven years of practice working as an emergency physician.

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“This has been a challenging time, both at work and personally,” said Mithani, who works at the ERs at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.

The 37-year-old remembers every single COVID-19 patient she has had to send to the intensive care unit (ICU) over the past year.

Multiple times she arranged virtual visits for the family members before putting the breathing tubes onto the patient.

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Calgary ER doctor takes sabbatical to photograph colleagues on COVID-19 front lines – Jan 18, 2021

Every single one of those cases has stuck out in my mind because they’re challenging from an emotional standpoint,” she told Global News.

You really feel for the patient. You can see how scared they are.”

From concerns around contracting the virus herself to the additional stress on the health-care system, Mithani says the burnout from work has spilled into her personal and family life.

As the pandemic has dragged on, the mother of two says she is finding it more difficult to bounce back and recover after a work shift.

Things that wouldn’t have affected me as strongly from an emotional standpoint have certainly affected me in a significant way.”

Dr. Joseph Finkler

Finkler says he misses the personal connections with colleagues and patients. Photo provided by Joseph Finkler

Dr. Joseph Finkler, 63, is an emergency physician at the St. John’s Hospital in Vancouver.

For him, the hardest part about the past year is not being able to have social interactions with his fellow doctors and nurses at work or even recognize them under the layers of gowns, masks and shields.

“The pandemic really changed everything,” Finkler told Global News.

“What this has done is just distanced us from our patients and from our colleagues.”

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The increased protocols and extra protection for seeing any patient has really “complicated what we doon a daily basis, he said.

In the middle of March last year, Finkler got sick with COVID-19 and was away from the hospital for two weeks.

Feeling fatigued, fever and chills and a having a cough that got worse with time, he described it as “one of the worst diseases” he has had.

Despite the pushback from neighbours and colleagues upon his return to stay away, Finkler said he was heartened by the connections he was able to make via telephone, emails and Zoom with the medical community and researchers from around the world, who were keen to share information as he recovered from his illness.

Nasha Zaheer

Zaheer says it has been a hard year for the whole family, but getting the vaccine has finally given her some hope. Photo provided by Trillium Health Partners

From admitting the first COVID-19 patient at the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont., on March 4 to administering the hard-hit Peel Region’s first coronavirus vaccine on Dec. 21, 2020, it has been a “rollercoaster” ride for Nasha Zaheer.

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At the start of the first wave in March, Zaheer, a 30-year-old Pakistani-Canadian nurse, moved out of her parents’ house in Brampton over concerns of getting infected and taking the virus home.

She says being separated from her family was the “biggest challenge” while being on the COVID-19 unit.

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“I think the isolation is the most challenging part and trying to still remain engaged and connected with society,” she said.

“It is difficult for health-care workers when we’re working 12 hours and then just coming home and being isolated.”

Along with the physical fatigue and mental toll at work, Zaheer recalled the moments of joy.

I remember in the beginning, any time we had a patient that was discharged off of our unit, all the nurses would actually gather around at the nursing station and we’d applaud … So that was a victory for us as well.”

Amid a decline in new cases and hospitalizations, Zaheer says the workload has now eased and there are more resources and better support for the health-care staff.

Dr. Earl Rubin

Rubin, who was hospitalized with COVID-19, said battling the virus was an eye-opening experience. Photo provided by Earl Rubin

Dr. Earl Rubin is a division director of pediatric infectious diseases at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).

In addition to his regular administrative duties and his role as a consultant, Rubin has been involved in creating infection control protocols and guidelines to protect the health-care workers and hospital staff.

However, his expertise did not make him immune to the virus.

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Montreal doctor shares his story following COVID-19 hospitalization – Jan 26, 2021

After coming into what he called a “low-risk contact” with a colleague at work, the 58-year-old was hospitalized with COVID-19 for five days earlier in January, at the MUHC’s Royal Victoria Hospital.

“That certainly had an additional impact on me personally, but also gave me a different perspective of how vigilant we really need to be in creating all of these protocols,” Rubin told Global News.

The constant flow of new information and research has kept him on the toes, as he worked seven days a week and many extended hours.

My classic line when I was dealing with the health-care workers was: ‘This is what we believe today. It may be different than what we told you yesterday and almost certainly will be different in what we’re going to tell you in the future.’”

Katherine Hambleton

Hambleton says paramedics have been filling the gaps in the health-care system during the pandemic. Photo credit: Lisa Polizzi/Kaspi Creative

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Katherine Hambleton has been off from work for the last couple of years.

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But that hasn’t stopped this paramedic and registered nurse from doing volunteer work and lending a hand to support the front-line staff on the grounds during the pandemic.

She served as the chair of the Ontario Paramedic Association (OPA) wellness committee that was launched in March last year.

“We’ve had such a tremendous amount of support from the community, and it’s really been uplifting in a lot of ways,” the 38-year-old from Peterborough, Ont., said.

Read more: Ontario announces nearly $10M for southeastern paramedicine programs

Hambleton said the first wave was particularly challenging for paramedics as patients were not always transparent and truthful about their symptoms.

“We still at times do encounter that and I’m not too sure what the stigma is surrounding that from their perspective. However, they certainly did not in all cases disclose that to the paramedics.”

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On her first day back to work at the Trillium Health Partners’ Mississauga Hospital on Feb. 26 wearing her nursing role hat, Hambleton got her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

Seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel,” she’s hopeful for the future.

“We’re moving toward walking through this pandemic and coming out of it stronger.”

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Justine De Monteiro

De Monteiro says she has not hugged her parents or any of the family members in over a year. Photo credit: McGill University Health Centre

Justine De Monteiro, 33, is a nurse manager at the MUHC’s Royal Victoria Hospital in Quebec.

Amid a spike in hospitalizations during the first wave, her post-surgery recovery unit was turned into a COVID-19 unit.

She said it was “discouraging” to witness so many deaths in so little time.

“They would pass away by the dozen, if not more, every week, and it was very sad,” she said.

Read more: ‘Security blanket’ — Coronavirus vaccines offer hope to health workers, families

As surgeries resumed in the second wave, Monteiro said it was challenging to balance that workload while continuing to care for COVID-19 patients.

Despite the decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations, she says the health-care system is “still congested,” with many cancer patients awaiting treatment and surgeries.

It is quite concerning,” she said.

Monteiro and most of her staff have received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

If the majority of us take the vaccine, then we’ll be able to end this quicker so we resume our normal lives as much as possible.”

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