Home News Pandemic stress puts frontline workers’ lives on the line and society’s values on trial

Pandemic stress puts frontline workers’ lives on the line and society’s values on trial

by Sara Hassanien December 17, 2020
Pandemic stress puts frontline workers’ lives on the line and society’s values on trial

A nurse long-term care nurse shares her experience of working during the pandemic

With a passion to heal people’s pain and a Christian devotion to serving others, Mary Morcos, 32, has always dreamed of becoming a nurse one day. Little had she known about what the COVID-19 pandemic had in store for her.

Morcos pursued her dreams of becoming a nurse after immigrating with her family to Canada from Egypt in 2011. She put her mind to training to become an orderly. She overcame all barriers possible: she learned French so she could use it to study; she lived on a tight budget while also taking care of her family during her two-year-medical training in Montreal.

After being an on-call orderly at several long-term care homes, she landed a permanent job as a CHSLD orderly at a long-term care residence.

On a typical non-pandemic day, Morcos signs in and checks the daily reports written about the elderly residents she takes care of. Her tasks range from measuring blood pressure rates, to administering medications or disinfecting wounds. She also feeds clients who have trouble swallowing and looks after their cleanliness.

Morcos has quickly grown attached to her clients over the months she worked there.

“I’m a warm person. I can’t live without people. Even when some clients are rude to me, I feel so sad when they are gone,” says Morcos.

A storyteller by default, she remembers the most peculiar details of her clients’ lives and stories. The symptoms and medical cases may vary, but one story will stay in her memory forever.

“It’s the same story. It’s about feeling abandoned by your children after all the years and losing relevance to society and the world,” said Morcos.

At those homes, some residents have mild illnesses, such as diabetes or blood pressure; other patients have complicated illnesses made worse by the ravages of time.

“Alzheimer’s patients are the hardest cases. They can harm themselves and blame it on others. I have seen residents walking naked, or wailing, or talking nonsense. I’ve seen all that,” Morcos said.

When the pandemic broke out, Morcos found herself obliged to do more with less. There was inadequate protective equipment at first, which scared many workers off.

She started obsessing over her temperature or how many times she sneezed or coughed each day. She would shower after work and change her clothes, then shower again at home. She has done several COVID-19 tests and has had to wait in anguish for days awaiting the results.

There were days when Morcos could not go back home because she had to spend some nights at the shelter during times of pressure. At home where her husband and daughters confined themselves completely for four months, she totally refrained from hugging or kissing her children.

In a separate room, she could only talk briefly to them and hear their voices.

“Mina, my husband, is a hypochondriac. He was so anxious and could not eat with me or sleep next to me. The news was grim; knowing that I worked at a place with infected people was too much for him to take,” said Morcos.

Her mood has gradually started to go down despite her bubbly sociable personality. Morcos faced bouts of anxiety which explained her psychosomatic symptoms such as stomach ulcers and headaches.

But she had a moral obligation to go on.

“If everyone left, who could be there for them? I could not turn my back on them,” Morcos said.

It is still not clear how CHSLD organizations are assisting health care workers as they weather the tough weeks of the pandemic and stay resilient.

Psychologists are growing more interested in understanding how working on the front lines of COVID-19 could be tampering with the personal lives, relationships and sanity of many doctors, nurses and support workers.

According to Dr. Lucille Lufinni, a psychologist residing in Montreal, monitoring the rates of mood, sleep, and anxiety among healthcare workers during such a crisis is key.

“Depression, anxiety and insomnia are commonly cited symptoms among frontline health care workers, and we need to do more research studies if we really want to help those affected workers,” said Dr. Lufinni.

At work, Morcos sensed that things were growing more morbid.

“I remember hearing many desperate residents saying that they wished the virus would come and kill them. Death was their only savior from the prison they were living in,” said Morcos.

Residents were not allowed to leave their rooms, which led many to fall behind on autonomy and mobility. They were soon back in their diapers, glued to their beds.

Reports also mentioned how sanitary conditions in the long-term care homes were deteriorating: residents were hungry, thirsty and reeking with the smell of their urine and feces amidst dirty rooms with fruit flies buzzing everywhere.

Morcos has been able to deal with the job-related trauma. She could also understand her husband’s abstinence. But she could not wrap her head around seeing her friends distance themselves from her.

“They would plan outings and not tell me. They made excuses so they would not see me. If they were avoiding any contact with anyone, I would understand,” said Morcos, adding “but they were socializing with other people who worked at drug stores. Besides, everyone was spreading the virus.”

Morcos empathized with her clients at the nursing home and shared a similar sense of estrangement and disillusionment in humanity when her friends acted that way towards her. Like her clients, she did not receive the nourishing friend-to-friend support she expected and needed.

“It’s like when a man is loved by his wife, then all of a sudden he gets sick, and she asks for a divorce instead of being there for him. A friend who I cannot count on at a time of need is no longer a friend,” said Morcos.

“Nurses and orderlies are doing what many other people cannot do. This is a stressful job. We are frontline workers, and that means we are putting our own lives on the line,” Morcos said.  

“We are brave citizens, not monsters. We deserve better treatment and more support.”

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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