For Toronto-based Deepi Saharan, the pandemic led to a role as an unofficial spokesperson for those in the nursing profession. Her Instagram feed, @nursedeepi, reveals her discontent with the treatment of nurses as the pandemic persists. She posts bold statements such as, “The future of health care? Without nurses, there is no future,” and “Nursing is not toxic, the system is,” while making it clear that her opinions are her own, versus that of her employer, governing body or union.
Her outspoken commentary is a result of the stress of treating COVID-19 patients in a busy intensive care unit (ICU) at a hospital in the GTA. “Never have I ever seen families being wiped out despite all the medical intervention we did…there were days I would just come home and cry,” she says in an interview. “Imagine coming to work and just seeing people die all the time.”
“I am exhausted and burned out,” adds the critical care registered nurse. “I was so exhausted to the point where I had to leave Ontario. I am currently doing travel nursing within Canada. The pandemic really highlighted how health care providers, specifically nurses, were treated in Ontario.” Specifically, she’s upset by Bill C124 which gives other sectors, such as the police force and fire fighters, a bigger annual pay rise of two per cent, while nurses only receive 0.9 per cent.
Anita Czilli has worked as an ICU nurse at Windsor Regional Hospital in Windsor, Ont., since 1997 and reports dramatic changes to her workday since the start of the pandemic. “Nursing a COVID-19 patient is different from the acuity of other critical care patients in the past,” she says. In addition to sealing rooms and wearing necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect herself at work, she can only stay in a room for 15 minutes to lessen her exposure to a patient’s viral load, which means speeding up tasks such as medicine checks.
To help COVID-19 patients breathe, she says it takes a village and a measure of risk. “It takes six people to prone them, so they are laying on their belly, and we have to do this without disconnecting all the lines that are attached to them. We could lose them in the process of turning them over; their heart could stop,” she explains.
When asked to compare her work life today versus over 18 months ago, Ms. Czilli says it’s even harder due to the current nursing shortage. “The third wave exhausted me, and I watched my colleagues fold. I watched very positive and upbeat nurses just looked defeated as months go by. There are 59 senior nurses that quit in one year,” she adds.
The collective exhaustion and frustration isn’t just felt within Ontario’s borders, either.
Josée Lavoie worked in one of Winnipeg’s largest ICU’s during the second and third waves of the pandemic and explains lack of staff is one of the biggest issues nurses are facing. “The critical care baseline is one-to-one [care]. With patients that are not as sick, a nurse may have two patients. During the second wave, we were taking up to three patients,” she explains.
She also mentored and supported redeployed nurses in the ICU from vast backgrounds – women’s health, operating rooms, recovery – who had no hands-on critical care experience, which added a layer of stress.
Breanna Harms is a public health nurse based in Killarney, Man., where she acts as a COVID-19 co-ordinator who completes case files for people who have test positive for the virus. “I am tired of the pandemic,” she says. “I am tired of being sworn at, yelled at … I do enjoy the challenges of my job [and] that every day is different, but I can honestly say that my perspective of people has changed.”
Ms. Harms explains collecting the COVID-19 data the provincial medical officer of health requires has become uglier as the pandemic persists. “We get yelled at constantly. [Clients tell me] we are ruining their lives by asking them to isolate or stay home from their job. We need the data, and we need their contacts so we can’t hang up on them.”
Most of the data about the virus we rely on “for the most part, is collected by a nurse. That’s where nurses are feeling invisible,” adds Dr. Cheryl Cusack, a registered nurse and executive director of the Association of Regulated Nurses of Manitoba (ARNM). “Community health nurses, they’re an important partner. They help individuals prevent illness, promote health and do the follow-up for public health.”
Dr. Catherine Baxter, assistant professor in the department of Nursing at Brandon University in Brandon, Man., explains the frustration nurses are feeling was present before COVID-19 set in. “Pre-pandemic, home and health care resources were very stretched. Hospitals were operating near capacity and because of that there was limited surge capacity,” she explains. “Existing nursing shortages and mandatory overtime were already in place … the pandemic really made these problems visible.”
Typical working hours for today’s nurse are unmanageable, according to Janet Hazelton, president of Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union (NSNU). In addition, the province’s nursing job vacancy rate is 20 per cent higher than normal. “Nurses typically work a 12-hour shift. Now, more often than not, we’re adding 4- to 6-hours. Only our senior nurses are getting vacations but none of our new nurses are getting vacations. They’re already tired, they’re already stressed, and now they don’t ever get to recharge their batteries,” she says.
“When nurses are happy at work, when they’re getting their proper breaks and proper time-off, everyone benefits, especially patients,” she adds.
Despite the on-going challenges, Ms. Lavoie remains positive. “I am hopeful that more will choose to get vaccinated in the near future, and I hope that folks who are on the fence about it, choose to educate themselves in a positive manner. The vaccine is really the ticket out of the worst of this pandemic.”