Marilou, nursing officer

"I was feeling everywhere but nowhere at the same time"

Marilou’s story

My name is Major Marilou Beaucage. I’m a nursing officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

During the pandemic, I was a flight commander of Canadian Forces Aeromedical Evacuation Flight in Trenton, in Ontario. And now I’m in charge of medical company at the 5 Field Ambulance in Valcartier.

I’ve been in the Canadian Armed Forces for 17 years.

Nursing officers in Canadian Armed Forces are officers, and we’re in charge of teams of medical personnel, such as other nursing officers and medical technicians. Right now, I’m in charge of a team of approximately between 80 and 100 medical technicians.

When did you learn about how you would be deployed during the early days of COVID?

In January 2020, my supervisor called me regarding Canadian citizens that were stuck in Wuhan, China, saying that there was a potential that the government would like CAF to be involved — to bring them back, those people.

I was really anxious when they started to think about sending us on this task. There were so, so many unknowns about — like, how long are we going to be gone? What if I get it? What if my whole team gets it?

And then, it’s a unique team in Canada. So if we’re all sick, then there’s no more — there’s nobody else that can do the task and bring the people back — because our initial mission at this unit is to bring back every CAF member, injured or ill, in the world. To bring them back to Canada or wherever they can receive the appropriate level of care.

So if we’re all sick, or if we’re all gone or in quarantine, well, that’s a capability that the CAF will not have.

And I didn’t know at the time, it was only the beginning of something huge that went on for months and years.

So that morning we left Hanoi, Vietnam. It was an hour-and-30-minute flight to Wuhan. We knew we had four hours on the ground to test, to take their temperature first, and then board the passengers and leave.

When we landed in Wuhan, it was nighttime. We saw highways, but no movement, no cars on the highway, only lights. The passengers were stressed out, but we felt that they were really, really happy and appreciative to see us.

It felt good that we had accomplished the mission. It was a super-long day, but then there were others.

We heard at that point, just once we arrived in Trenton, that there were other citizens, Canadian citizens, stuck on cruise ships. So my team had to prepare equipment for the other team that would go out on the other cruises.

But I was quarantined, trying to talk to my people and task them on other — it was like no time to rest. It was just ongoing.

I’m not a typical military person that we can imagine. Maybe because I’m a nurse, I have this need of taking care of people and make sure that they’re feeling well and that their needs are met. I feel like it’s a bit on the other side of the spectrum of military, where we have to accomplish a mission and whatever it takes to accomplish it and to reach the objective is — whatever it takes. So it’s like at each end of the spectrum. And I think I’m kind of often torn between those two, those two objectives.

My team, there was six of us, so four nurses and two doctors, medical officers. I feel like they really were super enthusiastic to get into that task, to be part of the mission, to be in the action. So I had to show them that I have courage and that I’m doing it. I’m just not asking you to do it, but I’m also doing it. But in my heart, I just wanted to be at home with my family, honestly.

The greatest challenges during that time was, I believe the balance between my own needs, my family, and the balance between meeting the expectations of the CAF, of my chain of command. My immediate supervisor was located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, while I was working in Trenton, Ontario. And for him as well, there was big expectations.

So he was really focused on the mission, while I was also focused on achieving the goals, of meeting the expectation, but also my people. So I felt like I was like a buffer between my team and expectations of the organization.

How was your mental health during this time?

I felt very alone during that time frame because, because the chain of command was so focused, again, on expectations, on meeting the mission. And I was really focused on my people. So I felt alone with that role of taking care of them.

I reached out for support, for mental health support. I had some meetings with a social worker, which really, really helped to be able to vent. I remember many times that I was, I just wanted to run. I just wanted to go and leave.

So, meeting all those — trying to meet all those expectations, trying to continue to be a mother and to take care of my kids, that was really challenging, finding the balance between that. And as a leader, I was also aware that my team, they were also feeling the same challenge.

But who else would have done the work?

I had to be there for the team. So it was really helpful to have mental health support.

It was hard. I was feeling overwhelmed all the time. I was feeling that I was everywhere but nowhere at the same time.

Like, I was at home with the kids, but thinking about my workload and what else I have to do at work. And while I was at work, I was only thinking, well, this workday is never going to end. I have so much things to do, but I really want to be home.

When I reached out for help, I got the help that I needed, so I’m very appreciative of that.

How was the mental health of the team you were leading?

We’re not discussing a lot about the stress or the impact it had on them because I think I thought that they were in it, like, all in it. I think I was maybe absorbing the pressure from higher, and then, to protect them. But they were also yes, very dedicated, and like they wanted to make things happen and to make things better. I talked with a few of them sometimes, like the ones that I was maybe a bit closer, about all the stress and all the anxiety — not the anxiety, but the high expectation of all the workload we had.

And I think they knew that I was struggling a bit, but they were all super dedicated.

And a few weeks ago, I talked to one of them who was really helping me, and helping the team to go through all of this, and he was proud of what we accomplished. So it made me super proud as well of what we had accomplished.

And most of the time, I honestly was feeling that I wasn’t, maybe enough for them, to lead them. But I was really doing it because of my sense of duty and because I wanted to be good enough for them.

In November 2003, Major Beaucage was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal.

But I spent the last two years reflecting a lot about those three years that I was in charge of that unit. And with a step back, I see more what I’ve accomplished and I’m proud that I went through it. And with my family as well — I’m still with my husband and the kids are healthy, they’re doing well.

So I’m proud of myself that I was able to keep it together. And I’m very proud of my team as well, of everything that we have accomplished.

I often felt like I wasn’t the type of leadership that the CAF was looking for, because I’m a nurse and I bring that colour to my leadership style. My leadership style I think is more towards an engagement of my team, and it works.

So there was a period of time where I was doubting a lot about that. But I think now, I know — I doubt less. And I think my leadership style can make things happen.

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.