This is a marathon, not a sprint

“You will never hear nurses say no. We just get the job done, because it’s what we do.” That’s what Erin Henry, Director of Pandemic Preparedness and Immunization Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada, had said. Recently, my colleague and I had the opportunity to virtually chat with seven public health nurses, who gave us an inside look at what the fight against COVID-19 looks like from their perspective. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Erin told us.

The country is our patient

To be completely honest, before our chat, neither my colleague, nor I, were familiar with the distinction between the role of public health nurses and frontline nurses working in our hospitals. Lisa Paddle, Manager of Pandemic Preparedness explained it to us, “for public health nurses, our focus is on prevention. We see the country as our patient, and our role is to help empower people and give them the proper tools to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.”

“We see the country as our patient, and our role is to help empower people and give them the proper tools to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.”

We learned that in order to ensure our country’s overall health, public health nurses have incredibly diverse roles, and with the impact of this global pandemic, their roles have transformed overnight. Erin’s entire division quickly moved into response mode, where managing Canada’s pandemic preparedness, became managing Canada’s pandemic response. Their focus now is on all things COVID-19: public health measures, emerging science, vaccine preparedness, the list goes on.

Somebody has to make the tough calls

“It’s like we are our country’s immune system, the white blood cells that inspect everyone who is entering.”

Frederic Bergeron never would’ve guessed when he started his career that he would be working through a global event. As quarantine officers, he, Tara Carrière, and Sara Thackoorie work to ensure that proper quarantine plans are in place for travelers entering the country. Sara does this right from the Toronto Pearson Airport arrivals terminal, where she meets travelers directly, whereas Fred and Tara are part of a 24/7 service, taking inquiries on quarantine measures, coming in from all points of entry into the country. Tara, a new quarantine officer, shared that at first she felt guilty for not being on the frontlines with fellow nurses. However, as she continued in her new role, she recognized that tackling the virus has many angles, one of which is reducing the spread of infection right at the border. For Fred, the biggest challenge is making the tough calls. “Many people are coming into the country for major life events, to visit a sick family member, or mourn the loss of a loved one. It’s incredibly hard to turn people around, or to enforce a two-week quarantine period, especially when time is of the essence,” he told us. But at the same time, Fred said he reminds himself that taking care of the health of Canadians is his top priority, “it’s like we are our country’s immune system, the white blood cells that inspect everyone who is entering.” Screening every individual who arrives at our borders has proven to be effective, “we’ve been able to detect positive cases before they made their way into Canada.” Sara added, “I feel like we’ve been successful in reducing the spread of COVID into Canada by assessing and catching it early on, and making sure people have a suitable place to isolate.”

Looking out for each other

“It’s great to see people lend a hand in any capacity that they can, even just getting groceries for someone helps tremendously.”

Adaptable. Versatile. Committed. Collaborative. Responsive. These are the words our interviewees used to describe the likes of public health nurses. These characteristics became evident in the stories they shared with us, and how they have each transitioned into new roles in light of the pandemic. Nurses everywhere have stepped up to the plate. Shikha Patel, who is a nurse working for the Public Service Occupational Health Program, told us, “I’ve seen a lot of nurses come back from retirement, and a lot of us have either been put into a new role, or expanded in our role, and some of my colleagues are even taking on two roles, to help in any way we can to support the people of Canada, as well as our own colleagues.” Sharon Smith, who works on the Pandemic Preparedness team said that amidst the challenges and countless hours of work, this is one of the proudest moments of her career, “the fact that you can see that what you’re doing is making a difference and playing out on the national stage is really rewarding.”

Shikha added that seeing Canadians come together to support each other is a wonderful thing, “it’s great to see people lend a hand in any capacity that they can, even just getting groceries for someone helps tremendously.”

Dear fellow nurses,

“We have to be patient, patient with each other, and patient with ourselves,”

During our virtual chat, we asked our interviewees what they would like to say to public health nurses in Canada and around the world. Sharon immediately chimed in, “these are really challenging times for all nurses but we’ve got this. If we stick together and rely on each other, we can get through this.” Sara wants to remind her colleagues that “learning so many new things and a lot of new information can be overwhelming, so it’s important to support each other and accept support when you need it. It’s okay to lean on each other.”

Lisa said she is proud of all nurses, whether in public health at the federal, provincial, or municipal levels, or on the frontlines. She wants frontline nurses to know that public health nurses have their backs, “to my nursing brothers and sisters in the hospitals, I just want to say that we are doing our very best to support you, by trying to prevent, wherever possible, the need for people to come and see you in the first place.” Shikha added, “take the time to forgive yourself, everything is go go go right now. We have to remember to be kind to ourselves.” “We have to be patient, patient with each other, and patient with ourselves,” Tara echoed.

At the end of all your incredibly long workdays, we just want to say thank you. We, as Canadians, will continue to do our part to support your hard work. As evidence has shown, Canada has made significant progress in flattening the curve. We’re in this marathon together, and the finish line—although may look different from where we started—is on the horizon.

 
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