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Excerpts from a care home volunteer’s diary: “It’s like entering another universe”

These are diary entries of our reporter @anne-marie-provost as she volunteers at Henriette-Céré care home in Quebec. It is part one of a two-part series. Find part two here.

Day One: 4 May, 2020

This morning I arrived at 7:20 a.m. at Charles-Le Moyne Hospital, a designated COVID-19 hospital near Montreal. Like others, my name wasn’t on the security guards’ sheet at the entrance. Nonetheless, I was told to go wait with the others.

I joined 25 persons of all ages who, like me, enrolled through the website launched by Quebec’s government to patch a hole created by massive staff shortage in the healthcare system.

After 45 minutes, the woman in charge finally arrived with a box of masks – insufficient in number. “You’re a lot more than I thought,” she said, looking at her sheet of about ten names. I was beside her, so I got one.

She guided us in the basement. She sat behind a desk while we waited in a socially-distant line. Soon, she started calling out names – there was a pharmacist, a nurse, people with no health training, students…

In the middle of a presentation on how to wear the protective equipment, me and two others – a nursing student and a computer scientist who lost his job – were asked to go in an office not far from there.

An administrator told us that we would learn how to disinfect rooms – the person was in a rush so we needed to move quickly. After putting on white cotton pants and sweaters, we followed Maxime – who had been doing this for three years – and his cart to the fourth floor, inside the palliative care unit.

An outbreak had occurred the day before. The team was transferring all patients and we needed to disinfect the rooms, hence the rush.

Maxime gave us plastic glasses (“take them home at night”, he said). We reached in front of a room with a red “Isolation” sign attached to the door, where he showed us how to wear the protective gown. The same sign was on several doors. Two doors further on, someone had stuck a sheet of paper – with “RED” written in cautious lettering. This was the room of a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Before entering our first room, my colleague Charlotte took a deep breath and said: “well, this is it.” I mimed as if I were loading a big gun. She laughed, as we walked with imaginary guns in our hands.

Day Two: 5 May

Last night, I got a call. They asked me to go to Henriette-Céré long-term care home the next morning, it’s not too far from the hospital. When I arrived at 7:20 a.m., a masked security guard with glasses took my temperature. I asked him if there were any cases here. “Yes, a lot. Lot with a capital L,” he replied.

I felt my life was even more chaotic than the day before. And after weeks of sitting in lockdown – unable to work on anything – it was a relief to be there and help.

I joined Simon, a maintenance administrator. He told me that half of the 100 residents who lived there had tested positive. On the ground floor, “yellow” rooms (suspected, unconfirmed cases) are located next to “red” (positive) rooms. This is odd. I’m sure there are more than half of the people infected in the building. And I’m sure there will be more.

We had a training session in the conference room for 15 minutes. I then followed Patricia, a maintenance worker in her fifties, into the second-floor red zone. A lively gang of nurses and orderlies – attendants who are responsible for patients, cleanliness, and order – from another care home were there. Almost all the regular staff is gone.

The atmosphere is different from the hospital I visited yesterday. Everything is moving fast, it has a level of disorganisation expected at this stage, and people are visibly on edge. You are reprimanded if you don’t wear your equipment properly or don’t follow protocol. There are a lot of rules to be followed; sadly, they aren’t instinctive…

Before going into the red zone, you have to disinfect your hands, put on a clean gown, disinfect your hands again. It’s like entering another universe – where alien protocols and gear are the only things that make sense. I find myself moving fingers, looking to the left and right, observing the floor attached to my feet – very much aware of my self-consciousness as I stand there.

Most of the patients on the second-floor red zone are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia. They spend their days looking out of this world. They sit or lie. They stare into the void all day long. I find it hard to watch, it makes me so sad.

In one of the rooms, a woman in a gown is sitting on a chair and wearing a helmet. She must fall down a lot…

My favourite is Mr. Landry. He walks around or sits, looking stunned, and he is always kind and happy to talk.

At the end of the hallway there is the weird sight of a security guard sitting in a chair, looking bored. He is watching a resident that sometimes get violent. He’s breathing heavily in his bed. The nurse say he probably won’t have long to live.

The room next door is empty, the resident died this weekend. It is our job to disinfect the room so they can transfer a COVID-19 patient from another sector. I was asked to throw two bags of clothes into the trash bin outside because the family didn’t want to keep it.

A jaded orderly sitting on the edge of the window said that the number of deaths will probably clear the care home waiting list. I imagine that her brazen cynicism is a result of the environment she finds herself working in.

Day Three: 7 May

Today I met Gilberte. In my head, I call her the “yellow section’s queen”. She’s been at Henriette-Céré for 17 years. She’s Haitian. She told me it was mostly black people who worked there before the crisis. Almost all her colleagues got sick or left, without support.

They were accused by the administrator of being responsible for the COVID-19 spread inside. She looks pissed and tired. And there are always new people coming in to work. She says that they act like they know everything and they are not always respectful.

She explained to me that regular staff knows what to do to get a recalcitrant resident to eat, how to lift them properly according to their taste, etc. And not everybody is receptive when she tries to explain.

Her yellow section on the second floor transpire normality. It feels like a small piece of what the care home atmosphere must be in normal times. It’s peaceful. I chatted with Jacqueline, a former florist. She is very talkative, very funny. She doesn’t hear often from her family; her room is less decorated than others. I feel sad for her.

And, downstairs on the first floor, there’s Eric always yelling at us because he wants to smoke a cigarette. He’s in a high-traffic area. He’s bored and he’s having fun bothering us. I’m having fun with him too. “Hey! Hey! I want to smoke!” “No Eric, you can’t.” “Why?” “Because God decided that way.” He smiles. “I don’t care about God!”

You can read more about the Canadian care home crisis in our digital magazine.

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