A difficult, uncertain and unforgettable year for Winnipeg nursing staff helping COVID-19 patients

You can’t see them when you drive by on Portage Avenue, and might not even notice them when you pull into the parking lot at Grace Hospital — but for the staff who carefully taped dozens of pictures, cards and words of encouragement to the windows, the decorations mean everything.

The notes and pictures are a reminder of how much the hospital staff has gone through since the COVID-19 pandemic began — and a year later, how much work still has to be done.

Read more: Manitoba reports 1 coronavirus death, 104 infections, year after province’s 1st case

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Shelley Keast, chief nursing officer at the Grace, told 680 CJOB that the hospital’s first case — of many — arrived March 25 of last year.

“It was a wave — an ocean wave that kept coming with fear, then exhaustion, then encouragement… then fear, exhaustion, encouragement,” said Keast.

“In wave one, the staff, all of us were afraid of what we didn’t know. We did not know anything, truly, about COVID.

“The information was coming so fast and furious at an alarming speed globally… so it was constant change, constant updates. It was like drinking out of a fire hydrant.”

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Keast said the main difference with the second wave was that the situation changed from being afraid of what they didn’t know to being afraid of what they did know.

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Also, as case counts continued to rise, the ward went from a handful of cases in the first wave of the virus to overflow conditions in wave two — and in some of those cases, patients’ condition could deteriorate quickly.

“They could be here having their lunch with you and saying, “Oh, I’m feeling good, thank you,’ and then you go in an hour later and they’re short of breath, and then they’re intubated, and not everyone makes it out of ICU (intensive care unit). Absolutely not.”

Read more: Fear, dread, helplessness — Winnipeg critical care doctor reflects on year of COVID-19

Registered Nurse Kate Hodgins, who works on what is now known as the hospital’s COVID-19 ward, said there was a lot of uncertainty from day one.

“I remember the first patient I had, the first time I walked into a COVID-positive patient’s room. I remember feeling very scared.

“(The fear) it’s basically with your protective gear — the contamination. That’s how you can catch COVID, if you aren’t wearing your appropriate PPE properly, or if you take it off.

“We get flu season, I remember in the past working through H1N1, and we were scared about that, but nothing like this — not to the degree that this is, because we’ve seen what COVID can do.”

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Drawings like this one have helped keep up nurses’ morale during this difficult time. Grace Hospital

Hodgins said as a nurse, dealing with death is a regular part of the job, but she hadn’t previously experienced it on the same scale.

“I think that’s been the challenge for a lot of us up there. It’s hard to set up iPads and do Zoom calls and FaceTime with families and hear them say their goodbyes — because we can’t have visitors, we can’t have families come in at the bedsides,” she said.

“On numerous occasions, I’ve been at the bedside when someone passes, holding their hand so they’re not alone. It’s really hard.”

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