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Excerpts from a care home volunteer’s diary:

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

Day Four: 8 May

It smelled like death today at the centre. Four people died and, for the first time, I saw the mortuary workers on the ground floor. They were wrapped in white suits, from head to toe, with a stretcher. It was a shocking sight. 

I asked one of the guys if it was depressing picking up bodies all day long. He was a fifty-something talkative, sociable man. Without hesitation he said: it wasn’t.

“They did their time, and it was their time.” 

Instantly, he also added that picking up babies is rougher. I felt the world go topsy-turvy, at least in my mind. While I was walking away, his raspy voice stopped me. He pleasantly reminded me to enjoy life and thanked me for my work, as he stood ruminant in the corridor.

Someone else had died on the second floor. While I was disinfecting the hallway, I watched the mortuary workers shifting him to a stretcher, covering and strapping him up. 

It felt like a routine practised to perfection. It made me feel uncomfortable; I could sense the bewilderment looming on me. I shared my trouble with an orderly, whose advice offered some respite: it’s always unbalancing to see people dying, he says, but it’s a relief for the person (or at least that’s what he’s telling himself now he adds).

A week ago I would have disgareed; now, I find reason and humanity in his words.

In a red-zone room (with confirmed COVID-19 patients) on the third floor, another resident died with his daughter at his side wearing a protective gown, a mask and a plastic visor covering her face. She was holding her father’s hand in her plastic-gloved hands. 

One of the orderlies who took care of him did not want to see him in the hours before he died, hours of misery. She preferred to keep another memory of him – one in which he is still alive and well. 

Almost all the care home is now infected. On the ground floor, there are only three yellow rooms left. Even Eric, always asking to go outside to smoke, was calm. He’s now positive. 

It’s been a rough day.

I cried while driving back home. Now, I find myself drinking wine, even if it’s late at night. 

Day Five: 9 May

When I arrived this afternoon, there were more clean scrubs than usual. There was a shortage of employees; I think it’s often the case on weekends.

On the third floor, the evening-shift orderly was alone to take care of the almost entirely 30-resident infected storey. “I have four or five patients near the end of their lives, so I guess I’ll have less time to be there for them,” she told me, exasperation building in her voice. 

I felt terrible for her. I spontaneously proposed to help because we were enough people on my team. Her eyes softened and a smile stretched on her face – she told me that it wouldn’t be necessary. “At worst, I’ll call my husband to come.”

“As a volunteer,” she added with a bitter voice. 

“I’ll burn this building down,” she then said, exasperated. “After taking the residents out,” she added quickly. One last thought came out: “But I’ll leave the managers inside.”  

Well, that sets the tone. I mentally noted that she needed a bag of clean protective gowns, and I went down. 

The mood was better on the ground floor. In the hallway, orderlies were holding a huge iPad wrapped in plastic. As I walk past them, I saw the two women on Facetime waiting to talk to one of the residents. 

Many did a double-shift that day. I also feel tired because I’m working while having university classes and assignments. I had less energy to talk to the residents today.

After dinner, Jacqueline, the former florist, was laying on her bed under her sheets, looking anxious. This struck as odd to me because I’ve seen her engaged in conversations always.

As usual, Mr Landry was sitting in his chair staring into the void. Micheline was sitting on her chair in the hallway, her usual Pepsi in front of her with a bag of chips. She, too, was staring at nothing, her eyes half-closed. 

On the ground floor Eric was laying on his bed in the dark, his hands under his head, looking at the ceiling. 

Day Six: 10 May

Today was both sweet and violent. I helped Jacqueline a little; she was feeling better than yesterday. I laughed a lot with Eric and helped another resident to drink water.

But I also got called a bitch, a whore and a slut by Micheline. Micheline then yelled the n-word to another orderly, a young black woman. I was shocked, hurt, furious. I don’t know how she stayed calm. 

What triggered Micheline was the fact that her granddaughter was not allowed to visit. She called her family to complain that she was not being taken care of. 

The racism I sometimes perceive from people toward orderlies and nurses is disturbing. I think I notice it more since I have been to London, in a very multicultural postgraduate course, and lived in a student residence. It’s sometimes very subtle, and I don’t think people intend to be hostile. But, still, it’s enough to make you feel awkward. 

I told a black colleague about the incident with Micheline. She told me about racism in her area. 

When she worked in home-based care, a woman once told her that she had asked for someone “not of colour” to come. She was so pissed. She did her job but didn’t want to go back to this place. Also, when she walks in a hospital room, she sometimes senses that the patient doesn’t want her there because she’s black. 

Day Eight: 12 May

Today they gathered the maintenance staff, and we learned that Simon, my boss, tested positive. He’s fine, but he won’t come back for two weeks. 

We worked close one another; I wonder if I have it. I asked Simon’s boss if we should get tested and he said no, which I thought was a stupid answer. I got preoccupied about my health for 15 minutes… and then I moved on. When we enter the building, we have no choice but to reasonably think we’re going to catch it. 

Also, today, 25 paramedics started to work as assistant-orderly for at least a month, to provide a stable staff number for the time being. They are funny, energetic and enjoyable colleagues; it’s refreshing to have them there. 

And, light at the end of the tunnel, three patients are now testing negative in a red zone. The red signs have been replaced with green signs in front of their room. I am however convinced that lives could have been saved in the care home and there is a lot of us feeling mad about this. 

We can also wonder what kind of life. In the hallway, I heard two orderlies talking about a disappointed resident who didn’t die from the virus. She couldn’t take living like this anymore. 

Day Nine: 13 May

Today was another exhausting day. 

The doctor assigned to the care come left in a hurry during the evening. She received a call from her nephew, and she learned that her sister died suddenly in the shower. She spontaneously told me this in the changing room while I was cleaning. 

Poor her, she’s in the middle of the Covid-19 fight and, now, this. I feel each day has a different thing going on. It’s incredible how many nuances of pain, drama and sweetness I can experience and witness in one day.

A little earlier, at the nurses’ station on the ground floor, the doctor was speaking with an assertive tone to a patient’s son. The latter was worried and wanted to send him to the hospital. 

She told him that, tonight, he was fine. “He’s eating, and he doesn’t have a fever. But we’ve seen some patients who were fine the day before and died the next day. It’s harsh to say it like this, but I say it so you won’t be surprised… This virus, it’s something…” 

It’s making me think that a resident has been testing positive for the whole month. They still don’t understand why. But here the official timeframe they use is 21 days, not 14. 

Tonight, I was working on the ground floor. The residents are more lucid and autonomous in this area. Many were listening to TV series or watching the news, with a loud sound. 

My last scene from today is a resident, high on her meds in the hallway, hallucinating she was waiting for her suitcase after two weeks abroad. She went back to her room after an orderly gently told her she was not allowed in the hallway. 

“Sleeping in that room is the best thing in the world. It’s perfect, it’s paradise.” She looked utterly ecstatic. The orderly and I smiled at each other… Like, ok. But I felt a bit like the resident was from the Brave New World novel, high on soma. 

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