Heidi Ferris lived downstairs in her family home alone for a month when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.
Ferris, an emergency nurse at Cowichan District Hospital with 12 years working in her field, said she was concerned she would bring the virus home to her husband and two children, aged nine and 10.
“I used to strip out of my clothes immediately when I got home from work, even though we wore protective uniforms while at the hospital,” she said.
“I would just wave at my family from the bottom of the stairs and cook on a hot plate. Fortunately, we have learned a lot more about COVID-19 since then and I’m living with my family again in my house, but it was a very difficult time.”
Similar stories are being shared by nurses across the country as National Nursing Week, May 10-16, is being celebrated after a full year of the pandemic.
Jacqueline Kendall, another nurse at CDH who has 14 years of experience in her profession, said the past year had her, and many colleagues, stretched to the limit both in their professional and personal lives.
She said she shares a farm with her parents and young daughter and she was also terrified in the early days of the pandemic that she would bring the virus home from work.
“My mother has asthma and other health conditions, and that added to the extra stress we were feeling at work in the early days of COVID-19,” Kendall said.
Melissa Bustard, an emergency room nurse and coordinator of site operations at CDH, said she and her husband began sleeping in separate bedrooms and had devised back-up plans for any worst-case scenarios during the pandemic, like her moving to a hotel if necessary to protect her family. The nurses said the stress at the hospital when the pandemic began was bad enough, without also having to worry about the impacts on their families.
“The hospital’s staff were in a constant state of urgency waiting for a major influx of patients at any given time that hasn’t yet happened, other than a small surge in January,” Ferris said.
“We’d like to thank the community for dong their part, following the health protocols and staying at home, which kept the number of cases at the hospital way down compared to other areas.”
Bustard said another problem nurses and hospital staff across the province, and elsewhere, have been facing since the pandemic began is people coming to the hospitals and claiming the pandemic is not real.
She said the pandemic deniers claimed that the hospital staff were “sheep following lies”.
“I saw this at the West Shore Urgent Primary Care Unit in Langford when I was working there, and I’ve seen it at the CDH as well,” Bustard said.
“Security had to be called sometimes. Then there are those who refuse to wear masks or answer questions about any possible exposure to the virus, and some even throw things at staff when they get angry.”
Kendall said some nurses couldn’t handle the stress and pressure during the past year and have taken stress leave, while others have opted to go into public health where many became involved with administering the vaccines and have less interactions with sick people.
As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the community gets closer to herd immunity, the nurses are giving a sigh of relief, although they are wary of what the future will bring.
Kendall said she thinks it’s unlikely the virus will be completely eliminated, but it will be much more manageable in the future.
“We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that another pandemic doesn’t start anytime soon,” she said.
Ferris said the nurses and the other professions at the hospital appreciate the efforts made by the provincial Public Heath Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to educate the public and contain the pandemic in B.C.
“Dr. Henry was suddenly thrown in a position that she didn’t expect to be in and she did well,” she said.
“What she said was heartfelt. We’re now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It will be just a little longer before we finally achieve herd immunity and, hopefully, return to normal.”
But Ferris said she believes that some practices at the hospital developed during the pandemic won’t be going anywhere soon.
“We’ve learned some lessons about the need for personal protection equipment due to our heightened awareness of infection control,” she said.
“I think that, from now on, hospital staff will always wear a mask when interacting with patients.”
Kendall said the Cowichan community has done an amazing job so far during the pandemic, and offered thanks for all the support the hospital received during the past year.
She also questioned the wisdom of just honouring nurses during this week and acknowledging their heroic efforts during the health crisis.
“It should be shared with all health care workers and be called Health Care Week,” Kendall said.
“The physicians, housekeepers and everyone else should be celebrated too. We are all in this together.”