What it's like for front-line nurses battling coronavirus in the heart of the pandemic

Jun 8 2020, 9:36 am

Stanislav Mordovine washes his hands 60 to 100 times per shift, now that he looks after COVID-19 positive patients.

As a registered nurse at Toronto Western Hospital, this is the most effective action he can take to reduce the spread of the virus, in a city that’s feeling the brunt of the cases — the Greater Toronto Area public health units account for more than half of Ontario’s cases at 67.3%.

These days, Mordovine has to wear full protective personal equipment (PPE) every time he sees his patients. That means gloves, disposable gowns, face masks, and, in some cases, an N95 mask, which he rarely takes off during his 12-hour shift.

While being in the nursing profession means one is used to the stresses and emotional highs and lows of the job, the coronavirus is different.

It’s a disease Mordovine fears.

“It’s been extremely difficult to be a frontline worker trying to treat a sever acute respiratory symptom. My duty and obligation are trying to help the patients fight the virus with appropriate nursing care,” Mordovine told Daily Hive.

“But I’m afraid of being exposed to the virus, of not wearing proper PPE when working so closely to the patients. The treatments can only help with the symptoms, but you must wait for the immune system to fight it.”

For the 38-year-old nurse — who has been at Toronto Western for six years — it’s the unknown information about the virus and how it specifically attacks the human body that worries him.

Before the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, Mordovine was working on the General Internal Medicine Unit, caring for four to five patients per shift and following essential nursing protocol such as assessing vital signs; administering medication; educating patients and family members; communicating patients’ needs to other medical professionals; and offering emotional support.

But in mid-March he was moved to 8A Fell COVID unit, where his routine has drastically changed to accommodate the constantly changing needs of coronavirus patients and the enhanced safety measures hospitals must now adopt to deal with the virus.

He now cares for three to four patients — each coronavirus positive case requires more care due to the PPE needed and constant monitoring of symptoms.

“When I enter the hospital building at 7 am, I wash my hands and now I am asked by the screening staff if I have any symptoms that impede my nursing duties.”

Currently, Mordovine’s patients stay separately in private rooms and are placed on contact and droplet precautions.

The virus is most commonly spread from an infected person through respiratory droplets; close, prolonged personal contact; and touching an infected area, then touching mouth, nose, or eyes before washing hands.

The stress for Mordovine now primarily consists of if he’s wearing the PPE correctly and to ensure he’s not exposed to contracting the virus or spreading it.

“I’m constantly asking myself if I’m doing everything I can to protect myself, the staff members and the patients. You’re constantly evaluating risk factors. You’re analyzing the patient’s environment and potential exposure for the patient. You have to be much more mindful right now to prevent and control the spread,” he said.

But, the stresses of the job can take different forms.

For registered practical nurse Eleni Humphrey, being a screening supervisor at the hospital for two months had its share of distressing moments.

Humphrey, 25, recalls a moment when she had to turn away family members that were not pre-approved to visit their sick relative in the hospital.

The University Health Network, which Toronto Western Hospital operates within, now has a “no visitor” policy as a safety precaution to prevent virus spread.

However, the nurse manager of the unit can approve a visitor on “compassionate grounds” or for other special safety needs. Visitors who meet that criteria need to be screened prior to entering the unit.

“It was very distressing for me,” Humphrey told Daily Hive. “If you’re not pre-approved for special circumstances, you unfortunately are not allowed in. I had to turn away this family and they lashed out. It hurts me, it truly does. If I could, I’d let them see their loved ones, but this was a decision that was out of my hands.”

Humphrey added she understands fully why families cannot enter, given the circumstances of the pandemic.

Registered Practical Nurse, Eleni Humphrey (Photo courtesy of Eleni Humphrey)

As a temporary replacement, the nurses can provide patients with family support through video calls.

According to Mordovine, nurses have been using iPads with a secure connection to encourage patients to speak with their families.

“It feels great that they can see each other online. It doesn’t matter how long the session would last. The other day I was with the patients holding the iPad for them for the entire 40 minutes.”

Humphrey’s nurse manager, Anne van Deursen, told Daily Hive that nurses act as the additional support for patients, especially now, as they cannot currently see loved ones.

“You are seeing patients at their most vulnerable. It’s always sad when their family can’t come in. While there are exceptions, everyone is really just doing everything they can,” she said.

And for the nurses, who often get support from each other, there is now the added challenge of being unable to physically interact.

Before the pandemic, some of the nurses at Toronto Western would give each other hugs or offer a hand on the shoulder if their colleagues were having a stressful day, but that’s no longer possible.

“We cannot gather, have potlucks like we used to. We are following social distancing and doing our part to keep six feet away. I deliver the information in the morning to my colleagues with the face masks and shield, so your speech becomes mumbled. It’s different now as we cannot sit side by side. We’re still a big family, but it’s a bit disruptive,” Mordovine said.

Even for Humphrey, she now cannot physically interact with her parents, especially as her father has a pre-existing heart condition.

It then makes it all the more frustrating for both nurses to see the general public not adhering to physical distancing measures when outside, considering the lengths the frontline workers go through to ensure of public health safety.

“It feels like a slap in the face when I see people not physically distancing. People just think it’s over, and it feels like my efforts are wasted,” Humphrey said.

She added that the public must still follow public health recommendations, and if they don’t, it could be how a second wave begins. If there is a swell of patients, she warns that the hospitals will get overloaded.

“If all else, do it for your grandmother.”

Similarly, Mordovine said seeing the groups of people amassed in the city felt disrespectful.

“We’re doing so much to protect the population with COVID-19 positive cases. Maybe people don’t understand or want to expect that this disease is very serious, but I’ve seen what the virus can do the body. I’ve witnessed it,” he explained.

Mordovine believes that people are not seeing the seriousness of the disease and therefore are not behaving in accordance with the full gravity of the situation.

For now, the registered nurse asks everyone to maintain physical distancing, to not gather in groups of more than five people, and to be honest with each other that they are doing their part to protect the future.

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