Signs of caution and solidarity have been popping up all over Toronto as citizens learn to adhere to terms like “social distancing” and “self-isolation.” Michael Swan

On the virus frontlines: ‘Everyone is stressed’

By 
  • April 3, 2020

In hospital hallways, where the virus wages psychological warfare on doctors, nurses, cleaners and orderlies, hospital chaplain John Zamiska fears evil.

“You’re constantly worried about being a reservoir for this thing. You know the nature of this thing is you can be asymptomatic and have it. So you can be transmitting it without even knowing you have it. That’s the evil nature of it,” he said.

This game of hide and seek with the virus is played for high stakes.

“Everyone is on high alert. Everyone is stressed,” Zamiska said.

On March 22, Zamiska was feeling unwell and reported it to his supervisor. Naturally, he was banished from work until he could be tested. Just getting tested was stressful, he said.

“You had to wait in a line with other people who are coughing. I kept thinking, I might catch it just waiting for the test,” he said.

Zamiska tested negative and was back to work within days.

“When I came back, everything had changed,” he said.

Every day, new directives come down — new protocols for clinicians and other workers, new attempts to keep them and their patients safe.

“Every day the everyday changes,” Zamiska said.

As a chaplain, Zamiska spends a lot of his time on the palliative care unit trying to deliver spiritual care and comfort through a mask in an environment that can’t allow visitors.

“It’s very hard to be on the unit just because of the overwhelming sadness, especially for the patients that are lucid,” he said. “They don’t have any visitors — spouses or anybody. Thank God for FaceTime.”

For Zamiska, human contact is at the core of what he does. “Human to human contact — for those that are religious, that’s Christ, right? It’s really powerful, more-so than before,” he said.

St. Elizabeth Healthcare nurses, personal support workers and spiritual care professionals manage 10,000 palliative care patients a year in their homes (226,000 palliative home-care visits in 2018). For them, there’s added frustration and anxiety over a shortage of masks, gowns, goggles and hand sterilizer required for the 21,000 “care exchanges” St. Elizabeth workers engage in every day.

Using the standard of two masks per day which now governs Ontario hospitals, St. Elizabeth Healthcare needs 12,000 masks per day, said Nancy Lefebre, St. Elizabeth chief clinical executive and senior vice president.

The Catholic home-care giant has launched a nationwide appeal for equipment — masks people might have bought for a home renovation job or other equipment perhaps left over from a previous illness in the family. Anyone who can help is asked to call 1-866-244-6685 (ext. 140144) to find out where they can drop off equipment.

“To tell you the truth, it’s very concerning — a very dire situation with the shortage of supplies, especially masks that we don’t have in the community right now,” Lefebre said.

Since January new supplies of personal protective equipment have been redirected to hospitals. Lefebre points out that the virus isn’t playing by those rules.

“It’s moved into the community. It’s not contained within the hospitals,” she said.

The challenge for St. Elizabeth nurses is how to deliver necessary in-home care while limiting the number of people going in and out of patient homes.

One solution they’re using is to have St. Elizabeth staff link a physician in virtually, instead of having two or three providers in the homes.

“Sometimes crazy times drive innovation and creativity,” Lefebre said.

For St. Elizabeth nurses who serve patients on the street and in shelters, homelessness is now an acute health care threat.

“We need to be getting people off the streets,” said Lefebre. “We need to be seeing them, we need to be protecting them as a very vulnerable population.”

Mental health nurse Helen McGee manages nursing teams that see the need on the streets every day.

“We have some procedures that are higher risk for our nurses,” she said. “We would have to give injections of long-acting antipsychotic medication in the community — so in the person’s home. We work with people who are homeless as well. So we may be going to shelters or different places like that…. We don’t know when we are seeing patients what the risks are.”

As a Catholic in health care, McGee looks beyond.

“My family is worried about me coming to work. But for me the focus is that we want to be close to God, both now and at the end of our lives. To me, that’s the main thing,” she said.

As a general practitioner in private practice in London, Ont., Dr. Ramona Coelho knows she’s not exactly on the front lines.

“It would be embarrassing to say that we’re doing anything extraordinary right now,” she told The Catholic Register.

Coelho has volunteered to help underserved communities in Northern Ontario with video consultations. But most of her attention is on her patients. Many of them are surviving on government assistance. Many are refugees. Many were socially isolated either by their health or by poverty long before COVID-19.

“They’re the ones I’m worried about, not myself,” Coelho said.

Rather than look for heroes in lab coats, Coelho hopes Canadians understand their role in this crisis.

“Everybody in our society right now has an opportunity to do the right thing,” she said. “Doctors will have the opportunity to do the right thing; nurses will. But everybody can…. Actually, even more than the role of the doctor is the role of every person in society right now to make the right decisions at this point.”

Seventy-year-old nurse Helen McGrath cares for religious sisters at the Sisters of Notre Dame Motherhouse in Waterdown, Ont., near Hamilton.

“We have not had anyone positive, thank God for that,” McGrath said.

The Motherhouse has had to cut itself off from visitors and even reduce doctor visits to only the most essential, leaving the sisters without contact from the wider community. Because of a resident priest, their chapel provides daily Mass.

“The sisters are pretty philosophical about it — and prayerful,” said McGrath.

The part-time nurse lives a quiet life in the country, so she mostly finds the social distancing regime bearable. It’s not death that worries McGrath. In her working life, death has been a regular occurrence.

“I find it a true honour, to be honest, to be there,” she said. “I”ve always thought that the death bed is a very profound place to be. And that’s where we are a lot of the time.”

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