The Gleaner
Arts & Life

Voices from the Valley – The ER Nurse: A look back, and a look forward

Yvonne Lewis Langlois

Over the course of the pandemic, some Valley residents spoke with The Gleaner about how they were coping. Now, as the fourth wave of COVID-19 begins, some are providing updates on how they are faring now.

In October 2020, Tamara Niven entered the Barrie Memorial Hospital emergency room (ER) – not as an ER nurse of 17 years, but as a patient. She was experiencing headaches, fatigue, and a general feeling of being unwell. “I was sleeping 16 hours, then getting up to go to work,” she says. This had been going on for about six months. Like many health care professionals, she had pushed through; but apart from feeling exhausted she says, “I was short-tempered all the time… and not ‘me’.” She knew with certainty that something was wrong; she just didn’t know what.

 


Tamara Niven and her puppy, Theodore. “You can’t put your whole life on hold because you work a lot,” she says PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois

 

Her doctor sent her for multiple tests. When they all came back normal, he gave her two weeks off. Niven remembers her reaction: “’I don’t need two weeks off!’” She says, “I was completely in denial, and on autopilot.”

The daily stress of her job, along with mandatory overtime that demanded that she often work two nights in a row, had taken a heavy toll on her mental health. When her doctors suggested that perhaps she should change jobs, Niven’s response was outrage. “No! I love my job!”

However, January 2021 found Niven still on leave. Her diagnosis was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). She had also discovered that she didn’t want to return to work; the stress of the job, coupled with pandemic restrictions that caused her to be cut off from her family, had left its mark.

“I enjoy taking care of people; [I could] hold a perfect stranger’s hand… but I couldn’t go home and touch my family, because I could get them sick,” she says.

At the end of February, Niven returned to work evening shifts. There was no opportunity for her to get day shifts. “The [short staffing] has been a problem for 17 years. It’s not going to get better,” she states. The pandemic had also placed additional demands on the health care system: vacation time for workers was halted, and mandatory full time was put in place. Niven explains, “I don’t think that people realize that full time for us means that every two weeks you get two days off in a row. You get one day off in between, and on that one day off, they call you ten times. We were expected to be robots and perform at 150 per cent.”

At times, dealing with patients was incredibly trying. “You are going at 150 per cent for 8 hours, sometimes 16 hours, and a person comes in and says, “I can’t wear this mask on my face.” You look at them and think, “I’ve been wearing this mask for 16 hours.”

The best of both worlds

Before the pandemic, Niven had been a part-time nursing instructor at the Chateauguay Valley Career Education Centre (CVCEC) in Ormstown; but as her ER job made greater demands on her, she had cut back on the teaching. “I realized that I missed teaching a lot. I really enjoyed [it].” In the spring, Niven reached out to CVCEC to see how class numbers were doing; but when she was offered a full-time teaching job, she was unsure – it would be a huge career change. Summer was in full swing when she realized that the change might be a good idea. On July 13, and with conflicted emotions, she wrote her letter of resignation and submitted it to the hospital.

She started her new teaching job on August 17. “I’m positive, excited, and I haven’t felt like that in a long, long time!” she exclaims. “I get the best of both worlds. I still get the aspects of the job that I like: the social aspects of being with patients. I have a life, and balance.”

Niven feels that her experience with PTSD allows her to impart an important message to nursing students. “I think that people need to respect their limits. They need to listen to their body [when it tells them they’re] tired.” She is adamant that nurses should consult mental health counsellors on a regular basis. She knows firsthand that nurses are more productive when they are healthy.

Like most health care workers, she has strong feelings about the protection offered by the vaccine. “Did I get vaccinated for ‘me’? Maybe 25 per cent. 75 per cent is for my family, my coworkers, my neighbors, my community.”

 

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