Birgit, critical care & emergency room nurse

"Nursing is a profession that's driven by empathy and compassion. So it's hard not to cry with a patient, or cry with their families"

Birgit’s story

I work as a critical care and emergency room nurse in Ontario.

I really do love nursing. Nursing has changed me as a person. It’s this closeness to humanity, being a nurse, and the ability to know myself and to understand the other from a non-judgmental perspective. Nursing has granted me that gift.

It was hard to watch most people from racialized communities being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. I remember walking into an ICU [in a] hospital that was located in a predominantly white neighbourhood. But over 80% of the beds were occupied by racialized people. And I was shocked, like, why is this happening and why are these people more affected than any other?

Most of these people live in crowded housing. Most of these people do not have paid sick days. Not everyone has a luxury of staying at home when they’re sick.

People don’t want to hear that the system is racist. And there are factors that have contributed to, you know, racialized people being affected more by the pandemic.

People had to tell those stories. I felt like I had to tell that story. 

News anchor: Birgit, you’ve been sharing on social media how many nurses have left the profession since the last wave. What do you think, do we have enough hospital staff to handle a fourth wave?

Birgit: Absolutely not.

I love the fact that I’m able to impact people’s lives, however small. Whether that is being at the bedside with patients who are in very vulnerable states and being able to make a difference: it could mean just washing their hair or supporting a family member who’s feeling completely hopeless. I like the fact that I’m able to be a part of that journey for people.

There’s always been this pool of nurses who work for private agencies. The main goal is supplying hospitals with nurses when they’re short staffed.

So I work as part of a nursing agency. I’ve done this for over five years. The only way I could be a part of my daughter’s life and her school and be a mom at home was to find something that was flexible, and it was only agency nursing that afforded that.

I work in critical care. I don’t expect my shift to be easy. There’s a lot of psychosocial aspects. There’s a lot of emotional pieces to it. We see patients die. We wrap dead bodies.

But with COVID-19, that became too frequent, and we needed more mental health support available to nurses, whether or not they asked for it.

And that wasn’t happening. If you were a staff nurse, maybe you had access to the EAP program offered by the organization. But if you were a casual, part-time agency nurse, you didn’t have any form of support. And that hasn’t changed.

And the fact that we had Bill 124, which was already implemented, the wage suppression legislation from 2018 up until during the pandemic, and still now while we are in the pandemic, was just unheard of. People were leaving the profession because they were feeling disrespected.

The workload had increased at this time significantly. Fewer nurses were doing the work because most people were off sick.

I remember those early days of hearing about the pandemic and starting to see patients with COVID-19. It felt unreal. I remember looking after a patient at that time who wasn’t isolated, who didn’t come with the typical symptoms of COVID-19, which we now know. And this patient eventually had COVID.

I was called while I was working at another facility two days later to go home and isolate because I had been exposed. I remember that very moment. The triage nurse telling me I needed to leave, I couldn’t be in that space at all. It was really shocking. You know, the lack of support and everything.

So I went home. I wasn’t too sure like what to do. Public health messaging at that time wasn’t really clear, and as we know, there’s no paid sick days for most workers in Ontario.

I did isolate for two weeks, unpaid. It was hard. My greatest fear was bringing it home to my daughter.

I remember on many occasions I would wear a mask at home because I wasn’t too sure if I had been exposed or maybe I had COVID. 

I remember a time when a patient was dying and the family could not come to the bedside. I had to support the family through an iPad, and I had to stand there while they watched the patient take the last breath and just be of support. It was really hard.

Nursing is a profession that’s driven by empathy and compassion. So it’s hard not to cry with a patient, or cry with their families. So I remember many days having my N-95 mask soaked in tears, and in that particular situation, I cried so much, because it was just heartbreaking.

And when we had lockdowns, most people didn’t have support, especially racialized communities, people who don’t have their extended families here. It was a struggle. It was a struggle.

How do you expect a nurse to come to work while having little ones at home to take care of, and there are no extended families to help and they still have to pay their bills? Whether in good faith or not, people will have to put food on the table. And I did take care of a patient who eventually had COVID and was very sick, who had gone to work sick. Because that was the only way he had to cater for a little one and he was a sole-support parent.

It was really hard to see nurses being harassed in emergency rooms, or people yelling at nurses for long wait times. We end up bearing the brunt of all the chaos in the healthcare crisis, unfortunately.

And it’s the same thing: the government calling us heroes, however, having Bill 124. I can’t stop saying that. It’s the same thing, calling us heroes and fighting us in court. So it starts from the top and people just follow suit.

A special note of thanks from Healthcare Salute

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers from across Canada have participated in our research on “COVID-19-Related Stress, Moral Injury and Minority Stress in Healthcare Workers and Public Safety Personnel in Canada.” Their struggles, heartbreak, courage, and resilience have inspired and moved us, and formed the bedrock of our research for this project. We are deeply grateful and committed to sharing their experiences.

We would also like to express our heartfelt thanks to our funders, the Public Health Agency of Canada, for giving us the opportunity and the autonomy to share our research with the larger Canadian audience without bias or restriction. This work would not have been possible without their generous and arms-length funding support. We also wish to thank our collaborators and supporters — McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Homewood Health, and Homewood Research Institute.

After viewing, visit “Applying cultural competency in practice,” an education module for mental health providers and peer supporters.