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Two weeks ago, Tracy d’Entremont started working at a long-term care facility in Halifax to help during the COVID-19 crisis. “It has been the most stressful and rewarding experience,” d’Entremont says.
She works eight-hour shifts, from 7am to 3pm helping mostly with residents’ medications. She says volunteers have to get used to working in a new environment, with different policies, and new clients. She says getting through the job requires teamwork. “It is hard ’cause we need to wear full PPE, which is hot and the volunteers are asking a lot of questions,” d’Entremont says. “The staff are appreciative.”
But she says she loves to help the residents and knows people appreciate the work they all do. “People are so proud of us,” she says.
When the Examiner first spoke with d’Entremont, she was just waiting for the call to go. She’s a licensed practical nurse with the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) and works with clients in Yarmouth.
“I feel if I can help, I need to go help,” d’Entremont said back then. “If it was happening to us, we’d want help. We have to care for each other and the elderly. This is nothing we’ve ever lived through.”
She says she’s able-bodied and expects to have the support and be protected on the job. She packed some extras, like Tylenol and A535, just in case. “It’s very difficult work,” she says.
D’Entremont has worked as an LPN with VON since 1999. She previously worked as a public health nurse, in palliative care, and in long-term care. As a nurse with VON, she visits about 10 to 18 clients a day. The COVID-19 crisis changed how she worked in that job, too.
D’Entremont says she and her colleagues learned about COVID-19 and safety measures through phone calls, town halls, and emails from VON, as well as from the latest briefings from the provincial public health office. “We’ve been really supported with a lot of information,” she says. “We want to make sure we’re taking it from a reliable source.”
They wear masks and goggles when visiting with every client. She is also constantly washing her hands with lots of soap and water and has hand sanitizer, too. “I took Spray 9 and Lysol to clean and wash doorknobs,” d’Entremont says. Some of the gear, like always wearing a mask, took some time getting used to. “It can get sweaty,” d’Entremont says. “I’m 49 and get hot flashes. I don’t mind it as much as I thought I would, though.” She says some of her colleagues who wear glasses wear the shields.
She and her colleagues connected with phone calls and text. They send each other jokes or get together by using FaceTime or the Houseparty app. “We let each other vent a little and crack jokes,” she says. “Nurses have a sense of humour.”
She says she’s not a touchy-feely kind of person, but knows some of her colleagues could use a hug. “You’re trying not to contract this microscopic, invisible enemy.”
When she gets home from working a shift, she wipes down her car, her cellphone, takes off her uniform, and puts all the clothes in the laundry.
D’Entremont had another worry the last several weeks. Her 25-year-old daughter, who lives in Ontario, just recovered from COVID-19 after being diagnosed in early April. As an asthmatic, her daughter was also at a higher risk. But d’Entremont says after recovering at home, her daughter was able to get back to normal, even getting in a short workout. “It doesn’t sound like much, but she was pumped.”
“I didn’t want to share it with anyone,” d’Entremont says of the news about her daughter. “I didn’t because then you’d get asked questions.”
Her son lives with his girlfriend about a 50-minute drive away. D’Entremont’s husband, Marcel, is a lobster fisherman. Poor weather and a poor market for lobster sales kept him off work. When she was still with the VON, she and Marcel spent their time watching Netflix. “Spending time with my husband makes me realize I like him,” she says.
D’Entremont keeps connected with friends through the Houseparty app or she’ll spend time playing Scrabble online with her daughter. In the early days of the pandemic, she used to stay awake until midnight watching The National, but she changed that routine. “I try to stay away from the news,” she says. “At first, I felt like I had to be a sponge for as much information I could get.” She doesn’t watch the province’s daily briefings now, but checks in to see what the daily numbers are.
When she decided to volunteer to work at the long-term care home, she talked about the idea with her family, her VON manager, and friends. All were supportive. When she wraps up her time at the long-term care facility, she’ll isolate in the camper in her backyard. But she says she’d volunteer again.
“A global pandemic shows how bad things can get and you need to be prepared for the worst,” she says. “It makes you appreciate a good day’s work. I now have a perspective for long-term care.”
Like d’Entremont, Sheri Millington is also an LPN and took on a deployment at Ocean View Continuing Care Centre in Eastern Passage during the COVID-19 crisis.
Millington is a continuing care referral assistant with the intake/nursing-only assessment team in the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Central Zone. She’s worked as an LPN for 21 years. Before her most recent role, she worked with VON, in a physician’s clinic in Halifax, and at a long-term care facility out west. Millington’s mother was a nurse, so she grew up knowing about the career. “The older and older I got that seemed to be when I got interested,” she says.
Before she volunteered to work at Oceanview, she talked with her family, to make sure they were supportive and understanding. She worried what would happen if she got sick, if she brought the virus home to her husband, Rick, and if she could handle the job. Rick became her sounding board when she was working on site. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” she says. “It took a day and a half to think about it.” She adds, “if I didn’t have the support of my manager, I don’t know if it would have been as easy as it was.”
But she says she worried more about the residents and their suffering. “That was more of a fear in my mind than the virus,” she says.
The job was challenging for many. There were new staff, new routines, new roommates for residents, and new times for meals. Staff wore full PPE on the job. Residents weren’t allowed regular visits and she says you could hear their anxiety when she talked with them on the phone. Visitors to those residents in palliative care were restricted. And those who did visit did so for very short periods and went through a screening process first and wore masks.
Some of the patients with dementia or Alzheimers didn’t understand what was happening. Millington says the sight of staff in full PPE of masks, gowns, shields, and gloves, who are always taking their temperatures, was upsetting for some residents. She didn’t work on a COVID-19 floor at the centre, so she didn’t have contact with any residents who may have been infected. But she says she wants to families to know, “your loved one are loved so much.”
Millington says she was the “newbie” on the block, but all the staff and managers were supportive of each other. “I could hear people day long checking in with each other,” she says. “And they would check in with me.”
Her coworkers dropped off gifts for her. Another made Easter dinner. She connected with friends and colleagues through Skype meetings. Many of the staff stayed after their shifts were over to help with residents. “Everyone is doing everything they can and then some,” Millington says of the staff. “Not just the basics of life, but the extras.”
But Millington says the job was enlightening in many ways.
Millington recalls the loss of one patient at Ocean View, not to COVID-19. The patient’s family wasn’t able to stay with her for very long because of restrictions around visitors. But Millington took her own time to stay with the patient, including during her last hours.
“That kind of moment is a blessing for me,” Millington says. “To me, that was a gift, a blessing in my life. I was placed in that moment of trust for that person.”
Millington owns a gym in Burnside, which she had to close down because of COVID-19, but she didn’t give up the training. She has a small gym in her basement where she works on her powerlifting.
“I take all my stress out on lifting weights,” Millington says. “I didn’t have as much time, but when I did it helped significantly. When you can release all that stress, do it. Find a way to let it out.”
Millington would volunteer all over again, too, and says she wants other nurses considering a deployment to know there are more people who appreciate the work they do than they may realize. She says she offered her contact information to those who were considering going.
“I am more than willing to chat about my experience with them.”
In the end, Millington says she’s grateful to have had the experience.
“I learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of,” Millington says. “I learned so much love that I didn’t see before. Maybe it’s not a lesson learned, but a revelation. You know these bonds are there and they are important, but you don’t realize the impacts of those bonds until you see them.”
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