A year since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the efforts of home care workers on the front lines continue to show that in many cases home is the safest place to receive care. Throughout this crisis, VHA’s staff and service providers have made countless sacrifices and faced many challenges. For some, this has meant exhaustion and burnout, others have faced reduced hours and services, and for many, the risk of contracting COVID-19 or infecting clients or family members at home has created intense anxiety.
While everyone’s experiences have been different, there are so many VHA stories to share. Stories of collaboration, illness, compassion and other stories of people just trying their best to get through the day. Here are two stories from VHA staff that became infected with COVID-19, recovered safely and are now back at work supporting vulnerable clients and families in our community every day.
Nate’s Story *
As he worked towards completing his Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy at Western University, Nate always found himself drawn to community care. Despite the challenges of home care, it was the diversity of clients, range of cases and the opportunity to make a big impact that appealed to Nate. After graduating in the fall of 2020, Nate was ecstatic to be hired by VHA Home HealthCare (VHA) and to begin his career in the Toronto Central region.
“While I worked through anticipated difficulties like city driving and the isolation that can come with community health—I also started a new career in the middle of a pandemic. Talk about a steep learning curve,” Nate said. “Of course it’s been scary as a frontline worker this past year, but I was excited to be getting such massive experience over these past months and I always felt protected,” he said.
Nate lives with two immediate family members that are also essential workers and in mid-December his mother became unwell with symptoms pointing to a COVID-19 infection. “It came on quickly starting with muscle weakness, a dry cough and then we really got worried when she couldn’t taste or smell the delicious food that she’s known for,” Nate said.
After immediately isolating, Nate and his family members all tested positive for COVID-19. His mother continued to experience symptoms but was able to recover safely at home, while Nate and his other family member remained entirely asymptomatic. “It’s crazy to sit and wait for symptoms to start and not know how the virus will impact you in the short and long-term. I was also very worried about my mother and the vulnerable clients that I had contact with before my mom started showing symptoms. I really focused on keeping my family positive, limiting our news intake and staying as busy as possible in our apartment,” he said.
Three adults quarantined in an apartment with only a small balcony space was no easy feat—especially as the isolation period coincided with the holiday season. But Nate and his family were just grateful to be safe and healthy. “I know that our experience really was a best-case scenario for all of this, especially with my older family members getting sick,” he said.
Though Nate’s COVID infection was not work-related, he does see some real takeaways from both his illness and the challenging start to his career. “This past year has shown us all that adaptability is one of the most important skills to have. I can’t imagine a time where we’ve been more pushed to adjust, reset and keep going. I know that this flexibility will make me a better therapist and benefit me personally,” said Nate.
“I also recognize that I’m young and may have an inflated optimism, but this pandemic has shed light on a lot of things,” he said. “People are finally recognizing the inequalities that exist, the amount of work that has to be done to fix them and the importance of front-line workers in grocery stores, delivering packages and providing health care in homes—just to name a few. I know there has to be goodness and lasting change in all of this.”
Rose’s Story *
After over ten years as a personal support worker (PSW) with VHA, Rose thought she had seen it all, but nothing could have prepared her for a global pandemic. Right away Rose had to make the difficult decision to leave the long-term care home and residents that she had been supporting for over a decade to safely work in only one care setting in people’s private homes. With an already existing PSW shortage, Rose’s hours at VHA increased significantly as many of her colleagues had to take time off to support children at home or to protect vulnerable loved ones.
In mid-April, Rose saw a notice by the elevator about positive cases in her apartment building and she immediately panicked. “I thought I was probably being paranoid, but we have a shared laundry room and I knew I needed to get tested right away because I work with older or sick clients—just as a precaution. Then surprisingly, my test came back positive,” Rose said. “This was April 2020, very early on in the pandemic. We didn’t know anything about what we were dealing with and I was really scared,” she said.
As a severe asthmatic, Rose wasn’t sure how the virus would impact her, but over her isolation period she didn’t show any concerning physical symptoms. “I live with my husband and my son and I was so worried about making them sick. Because I stayed symptom-free and felt strong, I was able to put all of my infection prevention training as a PSW to good use. I never left my room—not even to step out onto our small balcony space—ate all of my meals alone in the bedroom and carefully disinfected our shared bathroom,” she said.
Rose’s diligence paid off because her husband and her son never contracted COVID-19 and she was so relieved to know that none of her clients were exposed in the week before her positive test.
“I’m so thankful to have stayed physically healthy, but unfortunately I wasn’t okay mentally through all of this. I’ve struggled with anxiety a bit in the past, but during my quarantine it was really bad—I felt like I was living with butterflies in my stomach. I was having regular panic attacks, couldn’t sleep, had no appetite and I lost a lot of weight,” said Rose. “My family was so worried about me over FaceTime calls because I didn’t look healthy.”
After the quarantine period was over and Rose had negative tests, she was really hesitant to return to work. “I was still so scared and I thought I wasn’t strong enough to start helping others again,” she said. “But honestly, getting back into my routine, working with my clients and doing what I love saved me. I was in a really bad place. This illness is no joke, regardless of how it impacts you.”
Rose still doesn’t feel back to her pre-COVID self, mental health-wise, and like many people she is struggling with the fear and anxiety that comes with an event like this. Especially as she goes out into the community every day. However, she does think that this experience and her struggles have made her a better PSW.
“So many of my clients live alone and many of them are in one room for most of the day for lots of different reasons. I got just a small taste of what it feels like to be sick, isolated and without family. I think I have even more compassion and understanding for my clients than I did before and it’s just further confirmed that PSWs do so much more than personal care. As if we needed any more proof,” she laughed.
* Names have been changed for privacy reasons