By Nathan Bharatt

Revera Westside long-term care home was once full of life. During a short break in the midst of an exhausting 14-hour shift, LTC worker Kaitlyn Madensky pulls down her mask and takes out her phone. She is wistful as she reminisces on a video of Westside’s Caribana Day festivities from 2019.

As the video plays, she listens to the metallic ping of steel drums that were set up in the courtyard. Her eyes gleam at the sight of Westside’s elderly residents dancing around with their wheelchairs and walkers, with smiles on their faces. She feels how carefree the staff were as she watches the mini dance party. 

The video ends and Madensky is crying. She takes a moment to wipe her tears and pull up her mask before returning to work. Things have changed since COVID-19 halted all the fun.

The spread of COVID-19 through the halls of Westside over the last year has left no time for celebration or dancing. Residents have deserted what once was the busiest floor at Westside to self-isolate in their rooms. 

“It’s like a ghost town on the first floor now,” says Tamara Thompson, office manager at the home.

According to Ontario’s COVID-19 data between April 24, 2020 and April 18, 2021, 3,755 residents in LTC homes across the province have died of the virus. Westside makes up 50 of those deaths and continues to deal with active COVID-19 cases as part of the eight per cent of LTC homes in Ontario that are still managing outbreaks. 

In order to protect vulnerable residents and staff, the building has been transformed with COVID-19 precautionary measures. The new normal at Westside creates a shift in the daily work routines for staff from the minute they arrive at work.

A sanitizing machine sits a foot away from the entrance of Westside. Staff must replace their cloth mask with a medical one before approaching the COVID-19 screening stations ahead. Pens must be disinfected before staff pick them up to write down the date and time they are clocking in for their shift. 

Steps away there is a screener in place to record temperatures with an infrared thermometer. A number below 38 degrees permits access to the next step. Staff are asked a long list of questions to ensure they haven’t experienced any COVID-19 symptoms. Only after being deemed safe by the tedious screening steps can staff officially start working.

Meet Westside’s First Lady

Nobody walks through the doors at Revera Westside without greeting Meena Timal first, the medical receptionist at the front desk. Now shielded with a mask and gown, residents miss seeing their beloved “first lady” all dolled up from head to heels.

Timal reminds herself of all the delightful residents at Westside to stay positive during the COVID-19 chaos.

On the evening of Nov. 12, Westside’s director of care Daniel Ramirez was called into work to respond to the home’s first large outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases. He has dealt with common cold and flu outbreaks within the home in the past, but he knew structuring a game plan for this outbreak would be much more difficult. 

“Every time we go into a respiratory outbreak we’re used to losing one to three residents, but with this virus we were losing one to three residents per day. It was a very dire situation in the building.”

Daniel Ramirez

He split the team of registered nurses into two groups in order to care for those who were COVID-19 positive and negative. One line of nurses assessed the positive residents with a full respiratory assessment, dietary assessment and a check of vitals and tracking of symptoms. The other nurses continued the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for the residents who had tested negative.

Personal support workers armour themselves with personal protective equipment before entering a residential room. Before COVID-19, they would simply wash their hands upon entry and once more before exiting. Now, they must do this while wearing a mask, face shield, gloves and gown and replace all of it with fresh PPE between residents. 

Even while taking all necessary precautions, Ramirez himself tested positive for coronavirus. He was sent into self-isolation on Nov. 17 and felt perfectly fine, but as the days progressed, so did his symptoms. He suffered severe nausea, vomiting, chills and chronic headaches for the 10 days he was sick. 

“I was still pretty weak for an additional two weeks,” Ramirez said. “So even though I was clear after 10 days to return to work, my energy was still very low.”

Weighing heavier than the pounding headaches was his inability to help his team at Westside. While bed-ridden, Ramirez thought about all the work he left behind for the management team. Since workloads had already doubled for Westside staff, Ramirez felt guilty sitting on the sidelines as stress piled onto his co-workers. 

How are Westside staff escaping the stress?

Madensky was eager to step in and take over his responsibilities while he was gone. At this point, she was the social worker, behavioural support nurse, staff educator and director of care. Juggling more than one job has become a common practice at Westside since the beginning of the pandemic.

And she is taking on a lot more than just her jobs at Westside. Madensky works to support her eight-year-old son and partner at home who lost his job due to the pandemic. “I feel sometimes I don’t have any more to give,” she says. 

The worst day came when she had to call the families of all 216 residents to ask about funeral arrangements. She had to call the loved ones of even the healthy residents because staff had to be prepared for when case numbers – and deaths – climbed.  

“I had families yell at me, cry, scream and say how crazy I was… and that I was cursing their loved ones because some cultures don’t speak about death.”

Kaitlyn Madensky

She offered all the reassurance and assistance she could give, while holding back tears of her own. 

She could understand the concern that families had over the uncertainty about safety of their loved ones. Members of her family always worry about her safety and even urged her to stop working when the pandemic hit, because of her weak immune system. 

Since birth, Madensky’s immune system issues have put her at a high risk of catching illnesses. She fears contracting COVID-19 could have a severe impact on her health and well-being. Yet she still walks into work every day, knowing it is the best decision for the sake of her son and partner.

A sign of hope came for Madensky when Ontario’s government approved vaccinations for all LTC residents in February 2021. Over 90 per cent of residents have been fully vaccinated, which has shown her light at the end of the tunnel.

“I felt like I was a part of history,” she said about the moment she rolled up her sleeve to get vaccinated. 

One day there will be dance parties in the courtyard again.