By Sue Tiffin
After she graduated as a nurse in 1971 Jeanette Gibbons spent 15 yearsworking in a neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in Hamiltonbefore moving to Haliburton County in 1986 to run a resort on LittleHawk Lake with her husband.
The life change offered a break from theintense and emotional atmosphere of the NICU but a few years laterGibbons found herself donning scrubs again when she returned to nursing this time at the Minden hospital.
“It was like learning all overagain” she said of the experience. “I had concentrated my career onpediatrics and infant care and neonatal and so here all of a sudden Iwas in an emergency department with adults and traumas and heart attacks and I was so used to premature babies for the last 15 years and thesesmall little quantities of medications and volumes of IV and so on itwas a learning experience.”
Besides a difference in patients she was seeing Gibbons was also experiencing rural health care.
“We did everything for ourselves” she said. “I’d had all the luxuries ofthrowaway equipment you know you’d use it once and throw it away andhere we had to sterilize things ourselves and package things ourselves.It was just a really different way of nursing apart from a bighospital.”
The experience was one that she cherished especially therelationships between staff many she held onto even after retiring from the profession in 2012.
“It was such a close camaraderie it definitely had its benefits there was no question” she said.
Because of the time lapsed Gibbons didn’t have an up-to-date nursing licencewhen the call came for health-care workers to re-enter the field as thespread of coronavirus was anticipated to surge in Ontario hospitals. She tried to find a way in which she could help including attempting toget in touch with Telehealth when a former colleague noted thatHaliburton Highlands Health Services was looking for people to act asscreeners – questioning and observing patients as they enter thehospital to assess possible coronavirus infection.
“You always havewhat you know” said Gibbons. “It’s been part of your life for 40 years it’s always there in your head right?”
Gibbons is one of more than40 people: nurses personal support workers housekeeping maintenancenon-clinical screeners and observers: a position that functions as abasic safety one-to-one support for patients or residents to be hiredor re-hired by HHHS to act as local support alongside the front linehealth-care team.
“We are looking to fill positions immediately”Stephanie MacLaren VP community programs Haliburton Highlands HealthService told the Times . “We have increased our screening practices and are working towards being able to maintain separation in our staffteams between acute/emergency department and long-term care – and across both our Haliburton and Minden sites. This requires up-staffing inclinical or direct care areas as well as support services (housekeeping maintenance etc.). We have created a new acute care unit in our Mindenfacility where there previously was none. The demand is great. We haveexpanded hours for any existing staff that are able to take onadditional shifts and have outreached to the community for health-careworkers screeners and observers to work in both Haliburton and Mindensites.”
Though her family wasn’t initially pleased with Gibbons whois almost 70 returning to work during a global pandemic she said thatafter speaking with HHHS human resources addressing concerns and beingable to choose the length of her shift she was pleased to be back “inthe middle of it all.”
“You know we go out and we go to thesupermarket even though we limit it” she said. “I felt far moreprotected in this job than I may be even going to the supermarket.”
Gibbons said she is well-clad in goggles or glasses mask and gown is behindplexi-glass and keeps a distance from incoming patients as she asksthem the screening questions related to their visit and symptoms.Visiting patients are asked to use sanitizer and are offered a mask at which point Gibbons takes their temperature.
“As I go up I’m completely clad so I don’t really worry about what I’m going up to” she said.
She then gives her assessment to the attending nurse – a different processis undertaken with those who are immediately presenting with knownsymptoms of COVID-19 but still one in which Gibbons feels protected.
“And I thought you know what it’s good for me because otherwise I’d behome watching this stuff all day instead of doing something” she said. “It would lead to a lot of inactivity. I mean really going out forwalks and so forth even that’s frowned on unless you’re certainly notnear other people.”
Gibbons said seeing news reports of others whohave returned to help throughout the province – including an 85-year-old nurse – has been inspiring.
“So I thought you know what it’d bereally great to see everyone again it’ll give me a boost emotionallymentally and physically to be able to feel like I’m helping andreconnect – they were my coworkers for many many years” she said. “I’mmeeting new people and I’m seeing old patients that I’ve knownforever.”
Gibbons is humble – noting that the front line workersdeserve much credit for the work they are doing – and feels she hasgained much personally from the experience.
“I’m finding it veryrejuvenating for me” she said. “I’m enjoying it. And I don’t feel thatI’ve got so much responsibility that my nursing has to be on the top ofit but my background has enabled me to see patients when I’m talkingto patients pick up other things that I’ve had to be aware of in thepast. That first assessment that first look and what you see can tell a lot. I think it’s really good for me. It’s another boost for me atthis stage of my life that I feel I’m back in the workforce a bit for a short period of time or however long it needs to be and I think it’sbeen very positive for me and I’ve been able to help out at the sametime.”
Rob Luke was a paramedic in this area and in Lindsay for a total of about 30 years beginning in the ’70s. He started out as asmall engine mechanic and marine mechanic but then at age 27 decided he needed a change which led to him going back to school to become aparamedic.
“And from then on it’s just been a ride” he said.
Luke retired in 2001.
“I’ve been working around with different things more or less retired aboutfour times now” said Luke who described himself as having a Type Apersonality. “I’ve got a bee in my bonnet so I can’t sit for very long. I have to do something and it might as well be something constructive so that’s where we’re at right now.”
Luke said as he kept up on the news he saw that the reach of the coronavirus was spreading toward Ontario.
“As time went on I started hearing about some of the nursing homes[throughout the province] some of the problems they were having thefact that they were short-staffed” said Luke. “… And our front linepeople right now they’re up to it. They’ve done a hell of a job. Soit’s only behooving on my part to say OK if you need my help I’mhere here’s my number give me a call I’ll see what I can do. That’sbasically what it came down to.”
Through HHHS Luke became a screener at Minden hospital but like Gibbons he said he’s only one of manydoing what they can to help.
“There’s people out there that are justnormal everyday people that are standing in for screening. They don’thave the knowledge that maybe some of us old people have but they’restill standing up and saying oh I’ll do that I’ll deliver this I’lltake that there I’ll go out here and do this. There’s lots of goodheroes out there. There’s always that extra pair of hands that you need. There’s always somebody that can drive somebody or drive equipmentplaces.”
And like Gibbons he was quick to herald the efforts of thefront line medical staff noting that he feels safe after having beengiven “good equipment good information.” Staff working in clinicalareas are masked for the duration of their shift with access to fullPPE when required. They’re actively screened with temperatures takenat beginning and end of shift and are provided scrubs for each shiftwhich are laundered internally.
“I’m just doing screening that’sall I do and that’s it” he said. “I’m just there to make sure thestaff that are doing the job have the time to do the job properlywithout having to run out and do screening and then come back in and run back and forth. All I’m there to do is safety valve taking some ofthe heat off that’s it. Nothing fantastic. Just help.”
Luke notesthe need for people to understand simple efforts like physicaldistancing washing hands and recommendations from public healthofficials.
“It’s the simple things the small things that are goingto make all the difference in the world” he said. “Staying at home when you need to be staying at home washing your hands keeping yourdistance and all these small things. They all add up. They’re justgiving us a break until we find out – until the scientists will find out – if they can make a good vaccine for this. And then from there on init’s just going to be another one of those checks in history. OK likepolio things like that that have plagued us in the past we’ve found a cure for that and we’ve kept on going. It’s science and technology that right now is going to [come] to the forefront to abate this thinganyway so all this distancing and everything else is buying us time and time is all we need.”
The extra hands on deck are offering HHHS time to prepare for a possible surge of COVID-19 cases and the hiring ofadditional support services staff is one initiative alongsideseparating facilities for COVID and non-COVID-related needs limitingmultiple work sites for staff and expanding hospital acute care unitofferings that has enabled the local health-care team to feel moreprepared for what could come.
“Health human resources in a ruralcommunity has always been a challenge but the increased demand due toour facility separations and not allowing for cross-overs between siteshas certainly put a great demand on us organizationally” said MacLaren. “We are planning in preparation for the COVID surge – and luckily havenot been hit by it heavily at this time. However we need to beprepared.”
The answer to how many extra hires the health team needs is unknown at this time.
“I think that is the biggest challenge for us right now there is muchthat is unknown” said MacLaren. “We would like to have a robust staffcomplement to support our COVID response. We have to plan for manypotentialities including staff illness that will have an impact on our available human resources both in hospital LTC and our communityprograms so we will continue recruiting.”
Though Gibbons and Lukeare humble in their efforts to help MacLaren said people stepping upnow have answered the call to serve.
“The dedication and commitmentto patient care that we see across the organization with our health-care providers is reflected in the sentiments of our new hires” saidMacLaren. “This is a calling for them – being of service to theircommunity in a time of need resonates very deeply for them.”