When registered nurse Rebecca de Witte learned about an outbreak at a Brampton long-term care home, she said she did not hesitate.
“Staff were afraid to come to work … and so that left the population very severely underserved so I stepped in to help,” said de Witte.
Her actual title is best practice coordinator for the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), so working the frontline was a departure for de Witte.
De Witte travels an hour and a half to Grace Manor and back each day from her home in Collingwood.
“Doing personal support work, registered nursing work, dietary support, social work, whatever it is that we’ve needed I’ve taken on those roles,” she explained.
After the death of two residents at the long-term care home and 20 patients transferred to local hospitals for care, the military was called in to help.
“We were very, very short-staffed at that time,” recalled de Witte, who welcomed the military.
“Nurses are not usually seeing so many of their residents and patients get so sick so quickly so that in itself, as a nurse, has been very traumatic.”
It is no secret during the coronavirus pandemic long-term care facilities and retirement homes have been the hardest hit, yet the chief executive officer of RNAO noted the nurses who work in those settings on the frontline have been central in the battle to save lives.
“You have not heard of nurses quitting their work or not coming to work or not being physically there,” said Doris Grinspun.
If de Witte is any indication, it’s been quite the contrary. Nurses answered the call amid the uncertainty of the epidemic.
“The expertise and the compassion … their courage to come day in and day out and never saying I’m not coming has made them a centerpiece of tackling COVID-19,” said Grinspun.
As Canadians celebrate national nurses’ week, 57-year-old nurse Brian Beattie became the first registered to die of COVID-19 in Canada. Working on the front lines, Beattie looked after residents at Kensington Village, a long-term care facility in London, Ont.
“So tragic and at the same time so devastatingly symbolic that on the birth of Florence Nightingale when we are celebrating, and trying to celebrate, nurses that we lost one of our own,” said Grispun.
For nurses on the frontline, like de Witte, they said the concern for sick patients, coupled with keeping the healthy residents isolated in their rooms, is beginning to leave its mark.
“Observing that trauma happening has been one of the darkest times in my career,” she said.
A nurse for more than 20 years, de Witte studied at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing in London, England.
She is also a mother, leaving behind her daughter every day as she makes the trip to Brampton, on the days her husband isn’t working. He, too, is a nurse working in COVID-19-positive long-term care homes.
De Witte said she hopes the cracks in the system lead to change when the pandemic passes.
“If we can find the silver linings … I think we can hopefully change long-term care,” she said.
“We definitely need to look at the staffing models.”
For ten years, the RNAO’s CEO told Global News she has been calling on Ontario to increase the number of nurses in long-term care.
She also pointed out the irony of 2020 having been designated as the international year of the nurse and the midwife in honor of the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth by The World Health Organization (WHO).
“Nurses always put the people that they care for first, whether it is entire communities like street nursing, with vulnerable populations and people that experience homelessness, whether it is residents in nursing hones, people in hospitals, people in their homes,” she said.