Nurse practitioner Jennifer Hinks flew to Toronto to volunteer at local hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, and as she thinks about returning home to Newfoundland, she says she feels conflicted.
“I’m talking to my fellow nurses who are tired and exhausted and have given so much of themselves. I get to leave, and they don’t,” said Ms. Hinks, one of nine health care workers from Newfoundland and Labrador who arrived in Toronto on April 28. “This is not ending any time soon. You feel a little guilty going home.”
Since May 18, 19 health care workers from Newfoundland and Labrador have volunteered to assist at Ontario hospitals, responding to a plea from Premier Doug Ford for help dealing with a soaring caseload of severely ill patients.
While in Ontario, they remain employees of their own health authorities, and salaries and travel costs are reimbursed by the federal government, the Ontario Ministry of Health confirmed. All of them will have to spend 14 days isolating when they return to their home province, which has been spared high case numbers. (The daily rate of new cases in Newfoundland and Labrador has mostly been in the single digits.)
Jennifer Hinks, 31
Nurse practitioner in the medical-surgical intensive care unit at Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s
Ms. Hinks already had her bags packed and a plane booked before there was an official ask for help. “Every time I saw a physician or nurse get on the news, I was like, ‘I could be there, I could help, what am I doing sitting at home right now when I could be there helping?’ ”
After sending late-night e-mails to hospital management, she successfully arranged a six-week trip to work at Toronto General Hospital. Then in mid-April the Ontario government sent out an urgent appeal for medical professionals to help. When the Newfoundland and Labrador government asked for volunteers, Ms. Hinks signed up and boarded a plane a few days later.
Ms. Hinks didn’t know what to expect arriving at an overwhelmed, and much bigger, hospital than she was used to, but was surprised to find the ICU was quiet and organized, with a grateful but exhausted staff. “I’m shocked every day when I go in there to just go through my shift without any panic. This team knows what they’re doing and they are doing it amazingly.”
While the Newfoundland team is one small group from out of province, Ms. Hinks points out that many Ontario health care workers have been redeployed for months, including 150 University Health Network nurses who have been assigned different roles as the caseload has grown. “I’ve never been more proud to be a nurse,” said Ms. Hinks, who has extended her planned three-week stay in Toronto by an extra week. “People keep saying that nurses are resilient, but we have no choice. And the nurses here, every day they’re acquiring more responsibility, more things that they need to do just to keep the hospitals running, and they never say no.”
After nine years of critical care nursing, Ms. Hinks says she has learned how to leave work at work. But this feels different. She misses being able to hug her patients’ families. She misses learning about a sedated patient by talking to the family in the room. And seeing how it affects her colleagues has been especially difficult. “I think it’s going to be really hard for me to go home and not think about them every day. How they haven’t gotten leave in 16 months and how they haven’t seen their families. I’m terrified of the long-term mental-health impacts. They are so frustrated and so sad.”
Dr. Allison Furey, 46
Emergency physician at the Janeway Children’s Hospital in St. John’s
“I don’t have the COVID exhaustion that my colleagues in Ontario and now in Alberta and Halifax have,” Dr. Furey said at the end of her last day in Toronto earlier in May. “I have come here to a very gracious community of health care workers. Everybody is working really hard and they’re tired, but they’re doing their job. They’re coming to work and they’re taking care of sick patients. They’re the ones that are sacrificing every day to be here.”
Normally, patients on the Toronto Western medical ward, where Dr. Furey worked, wouldn’t be as severely sick as many are now. But with the ICU overflowing, all staff in the ward have been forced to care for much sicker patients than usual. Dr. Furey knew that each shift she worked would give another doctor a break, which was why she decided to leave her medical practice and her family -- including her husband, Newfoundland Premier Andrew Furey -- to volunteer in Ontario.
“I haven’t really been able to completely process everything that I’ve done and seen in the last 10 days. I think that as human beings, we’re capable of so much more than we think that we are. I don’t think that a year and a half ago we all would have said that we could do this kind of medicine – that we could endure it.”
Terri-Lynn Hoskins, 25
Registered nurse at Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s
For Terri-Lynn Hoskins, it’s the ages of the patients in the ICU at Toronto General Hospital that haunt her. “Sometimes I have to quickly glance at the age and never look at it again because you just need that separation from it -- they’re so sick and they’re 20 years old,” Ms. Hoskins said last week.
“It’s always devastating when somebody gets sick, but we’re used to seeing older people get sick,and with younger people, you know, they recover really well. Now, we’re seeing young people get sick and not getting better.”
Ms. Hoskins is one of the younger members of the volunteer team. With four years experience in nursing and two years working in critical care, she’s accustomed to the stress of seeing seriously ill patients. But she said she wasn’t prepared for what she encountered here.
“We actually have to paralyze them so that we can take full control over their lungs and give their lungs a rest. It’s just devastating.”
Ms. Hoskins grew up in the tiny town of New Harbour, N.L. (pop. 491 in 2016) and says her home province has been fortunate because of its natural isolation. They had low total case numbers, and they had breaks between the smaller waves, but her colleagues in Ontario haven’t had a break for 14 months.
“You’re not out of the blue. You know ICU cases are climbing still. They are opening more beds. Since we got here they’ve opened up a whole new floor. So it’s climbing. It’s still climbing.”
Friends from back home are asking Ms. Hoskins what it’s like, and she says she doesn’t know what to tell them. “I don’t know if I’ve had time to fully process everything that has happened yet because we’re so busy. It’s just honestly so heartbreaking – the patients, their families, the health care professionals.”
And like both Dr. Furey and Ms. Hinks, Ms. Hoskins feels she’s learned an enormous amount and made lifelong connections with colleagues. But she worries about what will happen after she leaves and returns to a fairly regular life in St. John’s.
“I could go to the gym, I can run with my friends, but they don’t have that. There’s just no end in sight for them and you can feel that they’re just so burnt out and they need a break. And I don’t know when that’s coming, but they really, really need it.”
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