Patricia Malone has been part of St. Elizabeth Health Care for 40 years. Photo courtesy Patricia Malone

When somebody says we need help, that’s what you do’

By 
  • May 21, 2020

After 40 years serving some of the most vulnerable in society with St. Elizabeth Health Care, Patricia Malone was easing into her retirement. Her career wasn’t in the rearview mirror yet, but she was working half-time as she prepared for life beyond work.

Then came COVID-19. And when you work for an organization like St. Elizabeth’s, which is on the frontline of caring, you step up. So Malone is back working full-time.

She’s not out in the field with clients, but she’s front and centre dealing with the protocols to keep employees and those they serve safe during the pandemic. It was a decision that didn’t take much thought.

“For most people it’s a values-based decision,” said Malone. “For me, I grew up with St. Elizabeth’s. I’ve been there almost 40 years so when somebody says we need help, that’s what you do. You jump in and you help.”

Malone began with St. Elizabeth’s when it was an agency of visiting nurses, working in downtown Toronto with low income and marginalized people.

She’s held numerous leadership positions with visiting nursing teams, mental health, operations and finally landed in risk and quality improvement. She’s currently privacy and risk officer.

It’s actually more than a five-day a week job for Malone and others at the agency. It’s an all-consuming, seven-day focus on battling the virus at an agency that has evolved beyond its roots in nursing to offering personal support, rehab therapies and operating long-term care homes across the country.

“Everybody is focused on COVID and not necessarily on innovation or business processes,” said Malone. “We’ve had to put a lot of things on hold so that we can focus our attention on our frontline staff and our clients.”

That’s from top to bottom in the organization, from CEO Shirlee Sharkey on down, said Malone.

“Between the ministry meetings and trying to support frontline staff in caring for our clients, we’re all focused there.”

St. Elizabeth Health Care began in Toronto in 1908 as St. Elizabeth Nurses helping women in delivering babies and has evolved over the years.

Today, its 9,000 nurses, personal support workers and others make 20,000 home visits daily across the country, mostly with an aging population.

Safety protocols have been front and centre in dealing with the virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Canadians, the majority in the demographic St. Elizabeth’s serve, including at least seven PSWs. Thousands more have contracted the virus and St. Elizabeth’s staff hasn’t been immune. But the number of infections is low compared to some of the horror stories that have arisen in long-term care, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, and there has been no community transmission from any of its frontline staff, said Malone.

It’s helped having some experience from past outbreaks, like SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009. Many of the approaches have been similar, including having a command team, continual communication to staff and use of PPE (personal protective equipment).

Malone pays tribute to those on the frontline, those going into people’s homes and into care facilities knowing there’s a chance COVID-19 is lurking in the hallways and rooms of clients.

“The real heroes are the frontline staff,” she said. “They have fears. They fear they’re going to bring it home to their family, they fear they’re going to bring it home to their elderly parents who live with them. But they’re out there anyway…. They keep using the term heroes and that’s exactly what they are.”

Malone’s primarily focused on decision-making to support frontline leaders and staff exposures.

She’s staying on top of screening protocols and making sure staff have the proper PPE to service clients and getting those exposed to the virus tested, making sure they’re isolating and that their families are safe.

“We’ve developed all kinds of protocols to ensure that,” she said.

Her part-time contract is set to expire in mid-August, but she’s almost certain that won’t be the end of her term. She expects the crisis won’t be over by then, and besides, she says with a laugh, “You can’t travel.”

“If the organization needs me, we’ll talk,” she said.

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