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Voices from the Valley: coping with the pandemic

On Friday, March 13, the Chateauguay Valley received its first indication that life was about to change. All schools, universities, CEGEPs and daycares were suddenly closed because of health issues relating to the COVID-19 virus. In the following weeks, more shutdowns were ordered and terms like “social distancing” and “quarantine” became a part of everyday conversations.

David Kessler, an expert on dealing with traumatic events and loss, described the current situation like this, in an interview for the Harvard Business Review: “Loss of normalcy. The fear of economic toll, the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving collectively.” And yet social distancing protocols require that we be physically apart. Messages sent from our government, media and the world at large ask us to call or message to check in on our fellow human beings and to pose the questions, “How are you doing?” and “How are you coping?” Everybody’s situation is different, as we found out when we interviewed a sampling of individuals who walk the many different paths of life within our community.

Huntingdon: The Emergency Room Nurse
“Some days are easier, and some days are really hard,” says emergency room nurse Tamara Niven, who travels from her home in Huntingdon to work at the Barrie Memorial Hospital in Ormstown. Life in the ER has changed and continues to change on a daily, and even hourly, basis. “We have information meetings every day. There’s a lot of information being sent out to us.” After her eight-hour shift she does “homework” at her house, checking a website of CISSSMO (Le Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de la Montérégie-Ouest) that updates her on all the new protocols being sent down.

The COVID-19 virus, for the most part, is being kept away from the Barrie Memorial Hospital. Suspected cases are being handled by Anna Laberge Hospital in Chateauguay and Hôpital du Suroît in Valleyfield. The Barrie has only one “code room” and could not manage an influx of COVID-19 patients, but the hospital is doing its part.


The Barrie Memorial Hospital parking lot amid the COVID-19 outbreak, empty and silent. PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois

At the moment, Niven’s workday is quieter. The hospital has a priority system in place for patients who do come to the ER. Less serious, lower-priority cases, designated ‘P4’ and ‘P5,’ are referred to clinics. “We keep P2s and P3s, which are considered critical,” Niven states. She says this helps a lot, but people are also staying home and not going out, resulting in fewer cases of lacerations and broken bones. “We take on cases (not related to the virus) that we can handle, to relieve beds for the bigger hospitals,” says Niven. Like all hospitals, the Barrie is not accepting visitors. “Right now this is our best-case scenario.”

Niven finds that although people are very anxious, they seem to be appreciative of the hospital protocols. “They see that they are being treated and not stuck at the hospital for no reason.”

The staff members have been reassured that essential equipment is available to them. “We have had lengthy conversations about it and have been reassured that we are okay. We have enough.” Niven is herself thankful for her work colleagues. “I work with a really great group of people and we are all in the same boat. We understand each other, so at work itself we have dealt with all our fears. We are all scared at different times. We support each other.”

For Tamara Niven the hardest part of this situation is not seeing her family. Because she is high-risk, she cannot go out. Once the pandemic eases, she says, “I think that we will appreciate family and friends and get-togethers and make the best of those moments because they were taken away for a while.”

She describes the emergency room under these unusual new conditions: “There is an eerie quiet. I have a weird feeling it’s the calm before the storm. It’s like we are all holding our breath.”

Hemmingford: The Teacher
Norma Hubbard was born and raised in Hemmingford. She has been teaching in St. Hubert at the Riverside School Board’s Heritage Regional High School for 20-plus years. Since the March 13 mass school closures, she has been at home with her dog Layla for company. She has no Wi-Fi or TV, so Netflix and Googling are unavailable. Hemmingford, like all small towns, is pretty shut down but the essential services personnel who are working (at the pharmacy and grocery store) are “very pleasant,” she says.

Hubbard’s frame of mind changes from day to day, a combination of feeling “stressed, lonely, worried, along with moments of peace and hope.” She tries to stay on the positive side. “I have plenty of food and I am fortunate to have a pay coming in.” Her dog is very important to her; so too are her walks and her runs. “Time out in nature is vital.” She stays busy reading, sewing (teddy bears), and baking. “All of us are going to gain weight!” she says. She misses her long commute, her prepping for senior ELA exams, grad and prom, but most of all she misses her students. Some days are long but she tries to concentrate on one task to feel that she has accomplished something in her day.

For Hubbard the hardest part is worrying about her elderly parent and her daughter, who is so far away in B.C. Her advice for coping with this present situation: “Get outside as much as possible. Keep in touch with family and friends. Don’t forget that there always people who are living in isolation, even before this pandemic. We are not alone.”

Ste-Martine: The Essential Services Daycare Educator
Daycare educator Mélanie Pearson is still working two afternoons per week, on a four-week rotation. Mother to three children, 2, 7, and 8 years old, she worries a lot. Her husband is a manager at Anna Laberge Hospital in Chateauguay and has been working more than 50 hours a week due to the COVID-19 virus. “I am very anxious,” she says, “but happy to spend time at home with my children.”

When she is home she does lots of activities with the kids while at the same time doing her best to keep up their school lessons. “We have less running around and more family time,” she adds. For Pearson, the hardest part of the present situation is not seeing close family and friends. “We’re trying not to think too much about this pandemic, take it one day at a time and stay home!”

Ormstown: The Paramedic
“The game has changed,” states Ormstown resident and paramedic Gabriel Bourdon. While his shifts hours haven’t changed, they are definitely more stressful. He works 12 hours a day, on a 3-2-2 schedule: three days off, two days on, two days off, then three days on, two off, two on. He finds that although the number of calls hasn’t risen, the precautions that must be taken are more than those required a month and a half ago. He and his fellow paramedics are feeling the increase in stress levels. “We are all on edge, for sure,” he says, but he is resolute: “This is the job I’ve been doing for 32 years. I signed up for it.”

When talking of essential equipment he says that at present they have more than enough but there is a potential for it to become a problem so the word came down from above: Don’t waste! “As things progress,” he notes, “we will be suiting up for more patients.” Suspected COVID-19 cases are transported to the Hôpital du Suroît in Valleyfield and the Anna Laberge Hospital in Chateauguay.

Bourdon lives with his wife Peg. She works in the kitchen of the Huntingdon County Hospital, a long-term care facility, and although she doesn’t meet with patients, just going into the building is a source of stress for her. The couple’s routines have changed. Bourdon has been instructed to go to work in his street clothes, change into his uniform at work, and at the end of his shift change back to street clothes, taking his uniform back home in a plastic bag to wash. When he comes home he showers right away.

He finds that the stress level makes him more tired at the end of his workday, and it’s really tough not seeing his son and two grandchildren, but he remains optimistic. His message to the community is simple:
“Respect what the health ministry is saying. They are not overdoing it. Do what you need to do. We need to beat this thing. We need to get it over and done with and move on to something else.”

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