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'If that's not a hero, I don't know what is': National week recognizes contributions of nurses

Newmarket nurses are being recognized for their loyalty and bravery in the face of unprecedented challenges during the pandemic at Southlake Residential Care Village
Maria Fic, 96, has been a resident at Southlake Residential Care Village for almost 15 years. Her daughter, Anne Rabjohn, is chair of the family council there. Supplied photo

For the nurses at Southlake Residential Care Village, it has  been a long couple of years filled with resilience, perseverance and heartache. 

"I hope we never, ever, ever have to return to the conditions of the original lockdown. . . the effect on the residents and the families and the staff was just heartbreaking for everyone," said Carolyn Foster, a registered nurse at the Newmarket long-term care (LTC) home.

Nurses at the Village dealt with COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and risked their own health while working extended hours to accommodate staff shortages but through it all, said Foster, they carried on because they were needed.

"I thought about (the risks), but I think I can speak for most of the staff where the residents needed us and our coworkers needed us and we needed to be here."

It's this type of dedication that is celebrated during National Nursing Week May 9 to 15.  

The annual event — coinciding with the birth of Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing — recognizes the nursing profession and applauds the work carried out by nurses.

"This week, and throughout the year, we wish to recognize and celebrate our dedicated nurses at Southlake Residential Care Village. In long-term care, it's impossible to underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to make a difference in the lives of the people we serve," said director of care Tammy Lake in an email.

Foster has worked full time at the long-term care home since 1999. She said being a LTC nurse is her true calling and though the burnout rate is high due to the long hours, she has never wanted to work in any other field.

She enjoys the connection she has with both residents and their families and often spends more time with the residents than with her own family.

"The residents, to a degree, have become an extension of my own family," she said.

The pandemic was stressful and challenging, Foster said, and her decision to continue on in her profession depended on the day and on the week but in the end she remained and hoped it would get better.

"'It's just another day, get through today and tomorrow will be better,' and usually it was," she said.

There were days when she wondered how much more she could endure, she said, but then she would see a smile from a resident or hear them make a joke and thought, "'That's why I'm here' and it's back in the game."

Anne Rabjohn, Southlake Residential Care Village Family Council chair and retired nurse of 40 years, witnessed that dedication over the course of the last two years first-hand.

Her 96-year-old mother, Maria Fic, has been a resident there for almost 15 years and she commends the nurses for their loyalty and bravery in the face of unprecedented challenges. 

"It's amazing what these people have survived," Rabjohn said. "With COVID that's facing death!"

She compared nursing during a pandemic to being on the front lines in a war but said it was even more dangerous "because you're actually dealing with the bullet. If that's not a hero, I don't know what is," she added.

To boost morale among themselves and residents during the lockdown, staff thought up creative ways to entertain the residents but, according to Foster, it didn't always end up as planned.

In one instance, staff gathered in the parking lot to practice for what was meant to be a choreographed flash mob but "it never took off because we're quite uncoordinated," she said. "It was bad, so bad."

Staff were laughing at themselves and each other and looked up to find that the staff and residents watching them from the window were laughing as well.

With bad, there's always a light, said Rabjohn, and as we slowly come out of the pandemic we are more aware and more knowledgeable about the important role nurses play in LTC.

COVID-19 unveiled for the general public how broken the system is, said Foster, and shed light on how hard nurses, personal support workers and other LTC staff work and on the passion these caregivers have for the residents.

"Most of us are here because we truly care about the residents. There's so many places where we can make more money and have less heartache, but we come because we're dedicated. . . (LTC) is so rewarding and at the same time so disheartening but you're here because you love it. "

Foster said she heard a saying once, that nursing is a work of heart, "and it truly is."