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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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When the borders between provinces started to be restricted in March, I decided to stay put in Quebec, my adopted home. Originally from Ontario, I am a graduate student studying for my master of social work in Montreal. The country watched as Quebec, initially so bold in its approach to COVID-19, succumbed and became the worst-hit part of the country. I watched too, but from the inside of a long-term care home.

I had wanted to help, and several weeks after applying to Quebec’s emergency health care staff reserve, I finally got a call from the regional health authority that I would be deployed to a long-term care facility. As an aide, I would be responsible for supporting staff at the residence in caring for seniors and preventing the spread of infection.

My single afternoon of training ended with these words from the facilitator: “This is going to be an experience for you, probably a sad experience, but an experience nonetheless.” Then I was called at 10 p.m., and told that my first day had been moved up. I needed to be at the long-term care home first thing in the morning.

Later I found out that there had been four new confirmed cases the night they called me.

In my time at the home I changed residents’ clothes, their diapers, fed them, held cups of water to their lips, put lotion on their cracked skin, held their hands, called their families. I learned the names of their children and grandchildren. I welcomed them back from the hospital. I listened to them beg to die. I closed the doors of their rooms forever and handed paramedics paperwork for the deceased. All of the residents on my floor were infected. All of them.

Every day that I came in meant adjusting to a new reality: This person died. This person went to the hospital. This person, miraculously, returned and recovered.

All around the city, hopeful rainbows appeared on billboards and on handwritten signs accompanied by our province’s new catchphrase, “Ça va bien aller,” everything will be all right. It felt hollow to me as I walked alongside those in their final stages of life, some of whom would never reunite with their families. One day I saw a sign in a window that did comfort me: “We don’t know what will happen, but have courage.” I tried to remember this as I went to work. It helped me keep my head up, and to smile at the residents from behind my mask and shield.

One day it fell to me to tell a resident that her test had come back positive and that she would need to move into a so-called “hot” room where infected residents were kept in isolation. After helping her transfer her belongings, she sat on her new bed, looking lost. “I have the virus?” she said. “Am I going to die? I’m not ready to die.” I sat with her and we talked for an hour about her illustrious, not-yet-long-enough life. Like they told us in training, it’s not a cheerful job, but that was the first time I felt like crying.

Another night, a resident died in the room he shared with his wife. I heard the paramedics explain to staff that they could only declare a time of death, and that we would have to wait for the coroner to take his body in the morning. They closed his eyes and left his wife to share the room with her husband’s body through the dark of night.

Nobody took the time to sit with her, as she wondered aloud why his face had grown so pale. Nobody even told her that her husband had died. That became my job.

I sat with her – with them. I explained as best as I could that he was gone. We looked through their wedding album together. After 70 years of marriage, she would not be allowed to attend his funeral. Two hours went by and I realized that my shift had already ended. Guiltily, I left but for the week after that night, I came back every day to keep her company once my tasks were done.

It was not the fault of the long-term care staff that the residents spent much of their time in isolation. Most were incredible at their jobs. They knew every detail about the people they served. But there was so much for them to do, and so few of them as they became ill and went home. The schedule for those remaining was unrelenting: 16-hour shifts, and a nine-day workweek. They deserve every recognition, including fairer wages and immigration status for those who are lacking. They are the backbone of Quebec. You would trust them with your mother’s life. I had few such skills, but I brought something they do not have: time.

While I was working, the outside world seemed to stand still. It was when I was away from work that I faced anxiety and fear. One day, as I was commuting to my shift in the home, someone on the bus told me to go back to China. After that, I went to work with a heavy heart. But that night, I sat with a Holocaust survivor recovering from COVID-19. I had been at her bedside on every shift for weeks. She was sicker than anyone. She would scream at me in agony when I could not give her more Tylenol than she had taken. In my heart of hearts, I was sure she would die. But she slowly became better. When I heard her laugh for the first time, it was glorious.

She said to me then, “My life was not easy. Now, I am old. I live here and it is good. I do not go hungry. If I need things, they give them to me. You take good care of me. I love you.”

That was the heart of my work, as an aide in long-term care during COVID-19. When I rode the train home at midnight, already tired for the next day, I carried her words with me. We don’t know what will happen in the future, but still summon the courage to carry on.

Silken Chan lives in Montreal.