Working as a Military Nurse During A Pandemic
Over the past couple of months while Adam has been hard at work getting our boat ready to put in the water and eventually getting to experience splash day, I have been deployed with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in Long-Term Care Facilities in Montreal, Quebec.
If you know me or read our blog, you know that my dream is to one day be a liveaboard sailor. In the meantime, I am busy saving money, learning more about sailing and the liveaboard lifestyle, and also trying to pursue all my ‘land-based’ dreams before setting sail. Some of these goals are fitness-based, like running my first Marathon, and others are career-based.
As a recent graduate of nursing school, I want to gain as much experience as possible as a Registered Nurse (RN) while on land. One of my career goals before becoming a Liveaboard sailor was (and is) to join the forces to serve my country and to experience all that that entails, including deployment. My first adventure with the CAF occurred when I attended Basic Training last summer, which meant leaving home for 12 weeks to learn the basics of military life. After graduating from Basic last October 2019 I never thought I would be deployed within months, especially within my own country during a global pandemic. But that’s what happened.
Over the past few months, I have been deployed to Montreal, working in long-term care facilities on what’s called Op Laser – the deployment of the Canadian military into long-term care facilities to help with the much-needed care of the senior population. Long-term care homes, especially in Quebec, were hit the hardest by the corona virus.
So, I went from working in a hospital, basically as a civilian nurse, to being called up to be deployed on an operation. As a nurse in the Canadian military, the training includes 9-10 months of working in a civilian hospital alongside an experienced civilian RN. This allows nurses to increase their knowledge base and nursing skills they learned after graduation from nursing school. This is what I was doing prior to being deployed to Montreal. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be deployed before my training was even complete!
The experience was challenging but overall I am happy and grateful to have had the opportunity to help out my fellow Canadians as a Nursing Officer. The operation came to an end with a mandatory 14-day isolation period, which is when I am writing this and has allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my experience.
This is my personal experience and the views I express are my own. I also was fortunate to work in ‘Yellow Zones’ in which there are only Covid-negative residents, who were for the most part in good health. I’m sure other military members, and other healthcare staff that have been working during the pandemic, have had much different experiences. Again, this is only a reflection on my own personal experience over the past few months.
As a Registered Nurse, I worked within my full scope of practice. My daily routine changed from day-to-day but I assessed residents, took vital signs as necessary, completed wound care, administered medications, and other various roles depending on the day.
I was deployed with a team of medical technicians. Medical technicians are qualified paramedics, and in my opinion, were under-utilized during this mission. At clinics on base, medical technicians do a variety of tasks. They assess patients, take vital signs, administer medications, and a variety of other roles. Because of legal reasons, medical technicians were not able to do these things during this operation. However, that’s not to say they weren’t a huge help to the residents. The med techs were working in the role of a PAB (Préposé Aux Bénéficiaires), or what we call in Ontario – Personal Support Workers (PSWs), the main purpose of which is to assist with activities of daily living that residents cannot do themselves or need assistance with. For instance, they helped with bathing, feeding, and most importantly spending time with the residents.
Not only was there a medical team deployed into the long-term care homes, but there was also a General Duty support team. The team we got to work with were Armoured Soldiers that normally drive and maintain armoured vehicles. Armour is a Combat Arms trade, which means they are way more hardcore army then I am. However, during this operation instead of driving big armoured vehicles, they were put into various tasks either in the long-term care centres or helping outside of it. Many of the members helped with cleaning, helping with meals, and other various tasks. Some of the members helped the medical team and did as much as the medical technicians which was a great help and was much appreciated by the residents! Another member brought an iPad to the residents so that they were able to communicate with their families whom they hadn’t seen in months.
Not Knowing What to Expect
For me, one of the hardest aspects of this deployment was the unknown. I got a call asking me to be deployed into a long-term care centre and within a few days I was deployed for training and started in the centre shortly thereafter. I really didn’t know what to expect when I entered the home for the first time. I just tried to stay positive and do the best I could under the circumstances.
After a couple of days I had an understanding of what my role in the long-term care centre would be. I was working within my full scope as a RN, as mentioned above. However, there was still the unknown of how long we would be deployed. On departure, we were told we would be deployed for a maximum of 45 days, but like everything that has been happening in these unprecedented times, that changed. It was difficult to stay motivated and positive when I really didn’t know how long we would be working in Montreal.
I am a new nurse and new to the Canadian Armed Forces. I graduated from nursing school last spring and went to basic training afterward, so less than a year for both roles. I never thought when I graduated nursing school, and then stepped out of basic training, that I would be leading a team during a pandemic within the year.
Being a new nurse, I was nervous to be in a role where I was responsible for up to seventy patients on the floor. Fortunately, there were amazing RNs, RPNs, and other healthcare workers, at the long-term care homes who were amazing and helped me out. I learnt a lot about nursing and care for seniors thanks to the help I received.
But not only was I responsible for patients, I was also responsible for a team of medical technicians. This was my first military experience besides basic training where I was only a recruit, meaning no real responsibility. I just had to do what I was told. In this experience, I was a leader. I had my own team. Fortunately, I had an amazing team of Medical Technicians whom helped show me the ropes of military life.
Je ne parle pas Français!
Not only was it nerve-wrecking to be put into a leadership nursing role, but this also happened in a French-speaking part of Canada. The first long-term care facility I went to was fortunately very bilingual and the majority of the staff spoke English. However, the documentation was French, and if you know anything about nursing – documentation is key! I was fortunately able to document in English, but I had to read the French documentation. I was lucky to have a few members on my team who could translate for me.
Many of the residents spoke English but several spoke French (or other languages, such as Italian). This was difficult for both me and my team. The medical technicians spent a great majority of their time working one-on-one with the residents so the communication aspect was especially challenging. However they were able to make it work, and picked up some French (and Italian!) in the process.
Another difficult aspect of the experience was wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) constantly. Although PPE is absolutely necessary and the military was following the guidelines for PPE, I won’t say it wasn’t challenging. Wearing a mask and face shield for an entire 12-hour shift was draining. Wearing PPE definitely was an added stressor.
Being Away From Home
Being a military spouse, I have gotten quite familiar with deployments, but usually I am the one at home and Adam is the one who is gone away. Over the past 5 years of living with Adam he has been deployed three times for 3-6 months at a time and has gone away for training on countless occasions. Him being gone is tough, especially the tours longer than a few months, but I have my coping mechanisms. Badger, our dog, always cheers me up when I’m missing him, and keeps me busy. I have my comforts of home, and have my girlfriends (and wine!) to lean on. With me being the one that is gone, I don’t have my dog (or wine!) to help me cope with missing Adam and missing home.
Another aspect of the mission that has been especially challenging has been the isolation. Because I live in Ontario I had to isolate for 14-days in Quebec before crossing the border. Isolation has been tough. I love being outside, especially on my boat, but also just to go for walks or running. Being stuck in a hotel room is rough. Especially when on social media I see all my friends enjoying their summer at the beach or barbequing. And seeing Adam unwrap the boat and get to sail on the Ottawa River has made me a little jealous! However, the best thing about the hotel I am staying at is there is a beautiful garden view with a pond that even has ducks! So that has been my entertainment during isolation.
Aside from watching ducks from my window, I’ve been trying to stay as busy as possible. My family and friends have sent me some novels and colouring books. I’ve also been practicing my French (thanks Duolingo!), and trying to stay as active as possible by doing daily bodyweight exercises, and I even ran a 5k by running laps in my hotel room! Although I’m trying to stay healthy, a large portion of my time has been spent with Netflix and chocolates. Part of it has been nice to unwind after a busy couple of months and catch up on some sailing YouTube videos, documentaries, and just plain old trashy television.
Making a Difference
At times I asked myself if what we were doing was making a difference. However, I know that my team and I did the best that we could under the circumstances, and that both the staff at the long-term care centres and the residents and their families truly appreciated that we were there to help.
The staff at the homes we went to were so grateful for us to come and lend a helping hand during this time. The nurses, PABs, and all the other staff have been working in these homes since the beginning of the pandemic, often overtime. It was definitely evident that the staff truly cared about the residents and were overworked, and we were able to take a small load off the shoulders of the staff.
Not only were the staff appreciative of us being there, but the residents and their families were grateful as well. Because of the population, not all the residents were able to be cognitively aware that we were there, but the fact we, especially the medical technicians, were there to help bathe, feed, and just be there for the residents made a huge difference. Getting to know the residents was one of the most meaningful aspects of the operation, and I will definitely will remember many of the residents for years to come.
Families were especially grateful for the military having a presence in the homes. Part of my role as being the nurse on the floor was communicating with the families of the residents, who haven’t been able to see their loved ones since the beginning of the pandemic. I was told on countless occasions how grateful the families were that the military was there to help their family.
Although not always easy, and there were definitely some challenges, but looking back I am grateful that I had the opportunity to help my fellow Canadians in a time of need. I was lucky to meet a lot of wonderful people, including fellow military members, the welcoming staff at the centres, and most of all the residents whom I will always fondly remember. This experience definitely strengthened me as both a nurse and a leader in the forces and made me more resilient. Not only will this benefit me in my career, but this will only make me stronger for the many challenges that lie ahead when Adam and I finally set sail.
How has Covid-19 impacted you? Were you isolating, working from home, or are you an essential worker? What has your experience been like?
Bonus: I also had the opportunity to be interviewed by CBC – my sister convinced me to share the link so if you’re interested see here.