Essential workers talk about how COVID-19 affects them

Health-care workers, grocery store staff, transit drivers and food delivery workers are among those being hailed as heroes for providing much-needed services amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Canadian Press spoke to people whose work has been deemed essential by their provincial governments about how the public health emergency has affected their lives:

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Lhamo Dolkar, nurse

As soon as Lhamo Dolkar comes home from her 12-hour shift as a nurse on the cardiovascular surgery floor of a Toronto hospital, she starts a 40-minute cleansing routine.

Before even stepping into her house in Whitby, Ont., Dolkar strips down in the garage and changes clothes. She heads for the shower and scrubs herself clean before dropping both sets of clothes in the laundry to be washed with hot water and bleach.

“It’s a whole saga,” she said.

One of the biggest stress factors during the pandemic has been the risk of exposing herself and, by extension, her family to COVID-19, she said. Her 65-year-old mother also lives with her, her husband and their four sons.

“I’m the only one who’s going outside,” said Dolkar, who works four days in a row then has five days off. “No one wants to hug me.”

People at work are anxious about the disease, despite protective measures put in place, she said.

“We are just waiting for influx to happen,” she said. “We’re suspecting it’s going to happen in the next two weeks because people will have come back from spring break.”

There, too, the lack of physical contact is hard to adjust to, she said.

“I’ve had patients hug me all time before this and I like hugging,” she said. “Now I can’t do that… I have to literally resist myself _ like think, every time, ‘This is (when) I’m going to get infected’.”

Dolkar said she recently had to explain to a patient that relatives couldn’t visit, even though the woman was a newcomer who had never been away from her family.

“I had to put my foot down when it came to visitors and she was going for this big bypass,” she said. “I had her after the surgery as well, so I arranged for a video call on my phone so she could connect and talk to her family.”

“We can’t lose that humane side of nursing just because we’re scared, but we have to do it very cautiously,” she added.

Every night, Dolkar and her family have been going outside to bang on pots and pans as part of a broader movement of gratitude towards essential workers.

She said the ritual helps keeps her motivated and upbeat, as do the small acts of kindness carried out by people across the city.

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Emmanuel Samson, respiratory therapist

Anxiety about his own health has become part of the job for Emmanuel Samson as he spends his workdays at the bedside of patients with COVID-19 as well as those suspected of having the infectious lung disease.

Friends and family are also concerned about his well-being during 12-hour shifts in the critical care units of Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C., as more and more patients are admitted for treatment.

Samson, 45, says he still looks forward to being at work with his colleagues and helping patients breathe by managing their intake of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide. Use of a ventilator is a last resort, and respiratory therapists can potentially manage four to five patients on the so-called breathing machines.

“There’s definitely feelings of anxiety just because the information on this nasty little virus is changing daily in terms of how we deal with it,” he said. “There’s also a bit of loneliness associated with that.”

Samson lives alone and says he copes by staying virtually connected with family and friends.

While he wouldn’t say if the hospital has enough personal protective equipment, he said the work has been ramping up amid growing awareness of whom coronavirus is affecting.

“We like to say it’s people 60 and up, or only the seniors and the immunocompromised. And it’s not. Being in the hospital, I’ve seen this thing first hand affect a wide range of ages, potentially including the neonatal population.”

The stress and concern that all health-care workers are feeling have led them to value one another’s jobs, whether they treat patients, transport them or clean hospitals, Samson said, adding “hierarchies” have been erased.

“In this pandemic there’s no time for that.”

The public’s support of health-care workers has made a huge difference in morale for him and his co-workers, Samson said.

In Vancouver and elsewhere, people have been showing their gratitude through a daily 7 p.m. applause or pot-banging ritual outside their homes as police and firefighters join in by blaring their sirens.

“What a way to bring a community together while we’re trying to stay apart,” Samson said.

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Jeya Nadarajah, infectious disease specialist

Dr. Jeya Nadarajah is used to working long hours and keeping calm under intense pressure, skills she’s putting to use as part of the senior team leading the COVID-19 response and preparations at Ontario’s Markham Stouffville Hospital.

Every day, Nadarajah reviews the latest scientific literature and helps update the hospital’s policies as it responds to the pandemic, all while providing guidance to physicians and managers across the facility.

It’s basically trying to give everyone an “overnight crash course” on 15 years worth of education and knowledge, she said.

Even for experts in infection control, however, this is uncharted territory, she said.

“Probably the hardest thing about this whole thing is we’re making decisions that are very unprecedented,” she said. “There isn’t a black or white or right or wrong answer for lots of things either.”

The hospital is managing staffing levels carefully to ensure people can be called in if there’s a surge in COVID-19 cases, and in an effort to prevent burnout.

“It’s going to be a long haul and it’ll be very emotional,” Nadarajah said. “I’ve been telling our staff and our hospitals that for last month to prepare themselves for making hard decisions, and to prepare themselves for the emotional turmoil, and to prepare themselves to be sad.”

Growing up in a war zone in Sri Lanka and later serving close to a decade in the Canadian army have taught Nadarajah to deal with stress in a way she predicts will come in handy as the emergency unfolds.

Her coping mechanisms include exercise or a run. “I’m very good under pressure in terms of understanding where people are coming from.”

Her husband also works in health care as a manager for a long-term care home, and has been working from home while watching over their four children, she said. He has been handling most of the grocery shopping.

The kids, meanwhile, are “resilient” and seem to be adjusting well to learning at home, she said.

People need to remember the potential impact on their relatives if they ignore public health measures, the doctor said.

“In the morning when I leave and I see the lineups outside, I see people still walking in groups and walking their dogs in groups,” she said. “It just makes me very sad because all I know is that I will be seeing their grandparents in the ICU in a week.”

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Matt Marshall, social worker

Matt Marshall has been supporting families of COVID-19 patients in the emergency department and intensive care unit of Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, where he has worked for seven years.

Families in isolation can’t visit their loved ones so Marshall speaks with them regularly by phone as part of a critical-care team that includes doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and physical and occupational therapists.

“It’s an added layer of stress for the people,” he says of the anxiety felt by those craving information on those in hospital.

“I’m also talking to people making sure that they’re monitoring their symptoms properly, that they know how to call for help if things are getting worse and making sure that they’re set for food.”

The families’ main concerns are focused on ”what the trajectory for the illness is going to be like, how are they going to be able to survive and what that’s going to look like,” he says.

Working by phone from the hospital instead of having face-to-face interactions with families has been easier than Marshall expected.

“I was a little bit worried about making connections with people over the telephone but I’ve found people are really receptive to communicating in any way they can and having that social connection is really important for them and being able to talk to people is really important.”

Marshall is coping with his own stress by spending time with family at home and reconnecting virtually with people he hasn’t been in touch with for a while, in some cases for years.

He’s also making the best of the time he now must spend at home.

“My yard looks really nice.”

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