By Sue Tiffin
One morning, Tanisha Gordon woke up with a scratch in her throat.
“The next morning, I woke up with a congested cough, mucous accumulation and nasal congestion and my immediate thoughts were, ‘oh no,’” she said.
Scheduled for work the next day as an advanced care paramedic for the City of Greater Sudbury, Gordon was able to get a COVID-19 test booked quickly.
“The 12 hours I was waiting for my results, I remember hoping it would be negative, praying it couldn’t be COVID,” she said. “Results are in – negative. I coughed with relief. I still felt like garbage.”
For Gordon, the next few days were extremely uncomfortable, and she said she hardly moved from her bed except to the kitchen to get more cold and sinus tablets, water and soup. Multiple times a day, she phoned home to her mom, Minden resident and emergency department nurse Kym Gordon, who analyzed her cough and tracked symptoms from a distance. Days later her health began to improve, but after taking another COVID-19 test prior to returning to work, she tested positive for the virus – likely the UK-identified variant of concern – that has plagued the lives of her and so many other healthcare workers throughout the past 14 months of the pandemic.
Gordon said that from a young age, a profession in healthcare and emergency response has been intriguing, in large part because of her mom’s work, and her father’s role as a volunteer firefighter for almost 18 years now. Though a career as a police officer didn’t pan out due to underlying health conditions, she pursued a fitness and health promotion diploma program to learn more about those health conditions, which ended up leading her on her current path.
“During my FHP program, I helped with a paramedics lifting lab and a light bulb switched in my head,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how clear everything became and the drive I had to follow that path.”
A gap year saw Gordon join the Minden Hills Fire Department, working alongside her dad, and taking an online anatomy and physiology program, then applying to a Primary Care paramedic program at Cambrium College in Sudbury.
“I knew very little about paramedicine before this program,” she said. “It seemed – in my eyes – as one that was hardly mentioned and never really spoken of. You always hear about fire and police at accidents and such but never much mention about [emergency medical services]. Did my eyes ever open up when I walked into my summer orientation and I am proud to say, my life has changed for the better. Paramedicine is much more than a transfer service. We are medics, not ambulance drivers.”
Later, Gordon completed Cambrium’s Advanced Care Flight program, and after that, she moved four hours away from home in Minden to join Sudbury’s team of advanced care paramedics, just in time for the pandemic.
“My experience has been eye-opening,” she said. “Finishing school, I was excited to get into this fast-paced, critical thinking, and exciting career … however, starting during a pandemic was a little different. We are taught now to slow down, we are no good to someone if we get sick. They made policies and protocols for screening and assessing patients from afar in order to don the most appropriate [personal protective equipment]. The increased PPE – gowns, masks, etc. – have been a stress to some, sweating through layers of clothing in a plastic gown and muffling your words through a mask isn’t necessarily the most comfortable nor the easiest way to communicate. I still consider myself new, I am thankful for my veterans who remind me to slow down and take a breath every once in a while.”
Sudbury has recently seen a surge in COVID-19 and variants of concern cases, said Gordon. For paramedics, they don’t know if their patient is positive or negative, and can only assess by way of a screener – asking questions about potential exposure or symptoms.
“I have personally never picked up a patient that I knew prior to arrival that they tested COVID positive,” she said. “I believe it would almost make it easier, you would be on high alert making sure your PPE was on properly and that there were minimal points of contact. I do know however from my colleagues that it is very unnerving. These patients are deathly sick. Death and COVID is a whole other ball game. Taking patients into the hospital, knowing very well that they likely won’t return home and telling their families the unfortunate rule of no visitors at the hospital is heartbreaking. Telling people their loved ones have died through my muffled respirator is my least favourite task.”
When not at work, life has been lonely. Gordon said she has spent downtime working out in her apartment, going for neighbourhood walks and binge watching shows on Netflix.
“Due to COVID [restrictions], I never had the opportunity to get out and meet others, which, if you know this field – it is very important to step back and unwind on your days off,” she said.
Given her limited down-time activities, Gordon thinks it is likely that she contracted the virus through an exposure at work.
“People have a hard time understanding some terms like asymptomatic and incubation period,” she said. “Asymptomatic is a term used when a person shows no symptoms, these people only find out they are positive when a swab has been done for, say, work or a medical procedure. These patients make the contact tracing a nightmare because another term comes into play – incubation period. Incubation period is a term used to reflect the number of days between when you’re first infected to when you might see symptoms. The incubation period for COVID is one to 14 days, which means you could have no symptoms from day 1 up until 14 days after you came in contact with the pathogen. Just because you’re asymptomatic, does not mean you won’t pass it along to someone who will show symptoms. I have transported a number of patients [who] tested positive later in the hospital. My exposure was likely from a patient who screened negative to my covid assessment, yet later tested positive. I wore my standard PPE to every call and my enhanced [gear] to every call screened positive.”
Many people, worried about potential stigma, have kept their experiences with COVID-19 private. But Gordon instead decided to share her positive status on social media, appealing to those who might still not be taking the virus or public health recommendations seriously in a post accompanied by a photo of her in her work uniform, mask lines deeply embedded in her face. In the post, Gordon writes that she “did everything right,” leaving home only for work, groceries and mostly solo walks – she has a walking buddy who is also a coworker. She said “no to family visits, to celebrating special events,” and said she “paid the price with my mental health – isolated, lonely and alone.” The post was shared more than 100 times.
“My mum mentioned the idea first,” said Gordon. “She said due to my platform as a healthcare professional and also knowing the amount of people that I do from around the world, home and multiple college programs, that I had an important audience to share my story with. We were in hopes that it would remind people, a year into this and a million lockdowns later, that it is in fact still, as much of a concern, as before … and maybe even more so. If I can get it wearing my PPE, what does that mean for those who don’t believe in it or refuse to follow the recommended public health guidelines. The response has been an overwhelming amount of love and support. I am thankful for everyone that has my back.”
Gordon warns others of how many people she had been exposed to, even having taken into consideration all public health measures.
“I thought it was over, I thought I was negative so once my symptoms subsided I went on with my life,” she wrote in her post. “I started walking and exercising again, went on hikes with my walking buddy (one), got my taxes done (two, three) picked up my groceries (four), went back to work (five, and six). Do you see how even with me being careful I still have six people I have to contact and tell them sorry, monitor yourself?”
Gordon said she wore a mask, washed her hands, kept her distance, and yet she still got COVID-19, pushing back on an oft-heard argument from those downplaying the spread of the virus that they don’t know anyone who has had it, that she is someone they know who became infected with the virus. Those continuing to take unnecessary risks as the province now sees a surge of cases during the third wave draw her ire, especially after the stress of working on the frontlines in taking care of people who are contracting it and in so doing, putting herself at risk.
“I’m sick of seeing these people who don’t believe in COVID, and who see all their friends and who are probably walking around asymptomatic,” she wrote on social media. “You wear the PPE, or don’t and then deal with what I dealt with. Respect me enough to wear a mask and keep your distance.”
Gordon is young, lives a healthy lifestyle and had received the first dose of vaccine prior to contracting COVID-19, but said the virus knocked her out with cough, inflamed sinuses, fatigue, body aches and migraines. She spent 14 days in quarantine while symptomatic, and was then put on another 10-day isolation order from public health due to her case of COVID-19 being screened as a variant of concern. She hopes her message will help the people she knows think twice before assuming COVID-19 is something that will only happen to someone else, or that their case will likely be mild.
“I am not going to lie, I was scared,” she told the Times. “I was very unwell and if my symptoms continued to worsen, a hospital visit would have been next for me. I am thankful that I recovered. My question for all of you is … will you recover?”