La Verendrye frontline workers open up about pandemic challenges

Merna Emara
Staff Writer

“Have you ever seen a movie where the skier is skiing down the hill in front of the avalanche trying to get away? That’s kind of how I see COVID-19 arriving to Fort Frances: It is finally here. As a nurse I am still trying to work my way through struggles and challenges.”

This is how Laurie Pelepetz, supervisor of nursing and education at La Verendrye General Hospital, described her initial reaction to COVID-19 surging across the province.

Frontline workers have not only been front and centre of the news, but also in trying to stop transmission through increased restrictions at hospitals and long-term care homes all while dealing with the unknowns of COVID-19.

According to a study “Sacrificed: Ontario Healthcare Workers in the Time of COVID-19” published in November that looks into the sacrifices frontline workers made, healthcare workers in Ontario have faced unprecedented risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. In carrying out this study, 10 frontline healthcare workers were subject to in-depth interviews about their main concerns.

They reported that the risk of contracting COVID-19 and infecting family members has created intense anxiety.

The study also said long-term care facilities have been especially impacted, particularly those under private ownership, which now account for more than half of the province’s long-term care homes.

“A disproportionate number of residents have been infected; many have died; long-term care staff have also been inordinately infected,” the study reads. “The situation became so dire that military personnel were sent in to replace infected staff in seven facilities in the province”

Tara Morelli, administrator at Rainycrest long-term care home, said as a leader in a long-term care home, the sense of duty is tremendous.

“As a nurse, there is an ingrained responsibility and duty to protect and care for others,” Morelli said. “I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to support the many Residents and families and my team members through this pandemic.”

Besides working prolonged hours and not being available for their families and children, Pelepetz said a big challenge continues to be visitor restriction set out by the Ministry of Health.

“Visitors and family are important and play a significant role in the patient’s health care and their recovery,” Pelepetz said. “Nurses are compassionate people; it is one of the reasons why many of us go into nursing. The problem is that there are rules in regards to visiting during a pandemic. The hardest and saddest thing I have ever had to tell someone is that they cannot come and visit their dying family member.”

Jody Tessier, registered nurse and a certified diabetes educator at Riverside’s Valley Diabetes Education Centre, said another challenge was starting and running the COVID-19 Assessment Centre along with registered dietician, Trisha Wood.

“No one knew what this virus looked like, how quickly it would spread or the toll it would take on the economy,” Tessier said. “Trying to navigate booking individuals, answering questions and preforming the tests could be a challenge some days especially when a positive case was confirmed. Knowing that I was the person responsible for calming down the patient so the test could be performed by me was sometimes trying.”

Despite all the challenges, frontline workers are still optimistic and look forward to a COVID-free world.

Hailey Beaudry, registered nurse at La Verendrye General Hospital, said the most important thing is to support one another with kindness and to not be judgemental towards others who do contract the virus.

“It is important to remembering that no one wants to contract or become ill with COVID-19,” Beaudry said. “Being respectful and kind shows the resilience that our small northern community holds; together we can work through the pandemic to return to the things we once loved about our home.”

In order to help frontline workers deal with the hardships of COVID-19, the Royal Mental Health Centre is now offering wellbeing support for healthcare workers during the pandemic. This program is called Frontline Wellness.

According to the website, COVID Frontline Wellness offers confidential support for health care workers through quick access to a trained mental health professional. They will connect with you and listen. You can share your experiences, receive support, engage in problem-solving and receive help connecting to other resources or services if needed.

This program is for those who work in a hospital, long-term care facility, retirement or group home, dental office, paramedic service, primary care or community health care setting; live in Ontario and are feeling the impacts of stress related to COVID-19.

While frontline workers do not deny the challenges brought by COVID-19, they said it is only one side of the equation. Members of the public should listen to health and safety guidelines and not underestimate maintaining good hand hygiene, said Nina Sokoliuk, supervisor of environmental services.

Tessier said being a single parent to two children and having the responsibility of administering COVID-19 tests was always nerve wracking.

“I myself could not afford to get sick or bring this virus home and potentially make one of my children sick. I have been a nurse for almost 20 years so I am completely confident in my abilities to wear personal protective equipment but that does not always provide piece of mind,” Tessier said.

“We are all getting tired of being told to stay home, how to live our lives and being isolated from our loved ones. I do not know how long this pandemic is going to last but please be kind to each other. Everyone is trying their best and each experience is individual. We are all navigating the same storm. Please do your part, wear the mask, wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay home if you are able.”