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Alumna Mallory Alcock on nursing during a pandemic

May 11, 2020
Guylaine Spencer

Mallory Alcock

What’s it like to work as a nurse in Canada during a global pandemic? A graduate of the BScN program at McMaster shares her story.

The threat of COVID-19 really sunk in for Mallory Alcock the day a patient in their twenties died in the hospital where she works. This was the youngest person in Canada to die from COVID-19 (so far).

“The patient was around my age. That was a big reality check,” says Alcock.

The death made the nurse and her colleagues realize that this virus didn’t discriminate. It could take anyone. Although Alcock didn’t personally treat the patient, she knew the nurses who did. “They were so rattled. It was really alarming.”

Alcock has two nursing positions. She works in a hospital emergency room, and she works for the Sexual Assault Response Team. She lives in Edmonton. She graduated from the McMaster BScN program in 2014.

The contrast between her life and work before and after the start of the pandemic is stark.

Before the pandemic hit, Alcock went to work and came home with little concern for personal safety. She and her colleagues coped with a profession that was demanding and stressful by finding ways to feel good. Alcock relied on two passions to get her through: physical exercise and travel.

And then the pandemic hit Canada.

The first big issue in Alcock’s hospital was equipment. With the danger of the virus spreading, the nurses’ union and the hospital began debating PPE (personal protective equipment), and specifically the shortage of N95 masks.

“In a matter of one week, there was so much fear,” says Alcock. “All of a sudden a lot of nurses were scared. Many nurses, especially those in emergency departments, are stoic and often don’t show their emotion. We are trained to deal with crises. This is the first time I saw a lot of people really uncertain about their jobs, which took me back.”

She was scared too. “I came to one shift and was handed a little baggie of five masks to last the day. I thought: How can we be that short on supplies one week in?”

She questioned her personal response, she says, “because I have always wanted to do international work. When I was at McMaster University, I did a placement in Nepal. I’ve dreamed of working with Doctors Without Borders. When you sign up for something like that, you know you are putting yourself into often extreme and unprecedented circumstances. When you do work internationally, there is a clear distinction between your home, and areas of conflict and disaster. To see my home now become the frontline to a pandemic was not a reality I truly prepared for mentally. It’s really hard to fathom what it’s like going to work in a first-world country and not having the supplies you need to do your job.”

Eventually the mask debate between the hospital and the union reached a conclusion. “The N95 masks are to be utilized only for aerosolizing procedures, like intubation or giving aerosolizing medications. Truthfully, if we were to wear the N95s at all times, we likely would not have enough. At other times, nurses are wearing medical masks and face shields, which are hot and uncomfortable and must be worn the entire shift. Wearing a mask for 12 hours can cause pain and irritation around your ears. Some people are coming up with creative solutions to hold your mask up on your head so it’s not wrapped around your ears,” she says.

Alcock works in the children’s emergency ward. “The child life specialists de-medicalize the process for kids. When there’s a procedure like suturing or putting in an IV, they go in early and explain things to kids and stay in the room while we are doing them, and they help to distract the kids. They have to wear masks now too. When they arrive, they stand at the door and pull down their masks and tell the kids: I want you to see my smile before I come in. They explain to the kids why we are wearing all this. They are taking photos of themselves without their gear on, and they put the photos on pins they wear on their gowns so patients and families can see their faces.”

Alcock must wear the masks and face shields with her sexual assault patients as well. “We respond to eleven emergency rooms around Edmonton. We visit patients, offer a medical exam, document injuries, offer them STI testing and if they want, we can act as a bridge to them reporting to the police. If the police authorize it, then we collect forensic evidence, taking swabs and looking for DNA evidence. We really try to de-medicalize the process for them. We’re there for them in all aspects. We want to know how they’re doing emotionally. Maybe they’re having a harder time relating to us with the masks? We’re told to limit contact with patients.” However, physical distancing isn’t possible with the sexual assault exams. A forensic exam can take five hours.

Alcock sees domestic violence increasing. It’s a tragic side effect of the pandemic. People are cooped up together. “Maybe they had a safe area at work and now that’s gone for them,” Alcock says.

The emotional strain of the work continues to wear on Alcock and her colleagues. “Now there is less fear in Emergency. People are more comfortable with the PPE supply. But now there is frustration. In Emergency we look forward to our time away from it. That’s what helps us to get through. But now that’s not the reality. People feel very sad that their trips have been cancelled. We have less to look forward to. I don’t think anyone really realized what this would be like, in terms of exposing your family, and not being able to do the things we love. It’s become so apparent in nursing that in order to remain sane, you have to have a balance. And it’s become really hard to strike that balance now.”

Alcock tries to take things day by day. “At some of my lowest moments, I’ve done a gratitude journal, where I write down five things that made me grateful that day. That’s been helpful in taking me out of that negative mindset. Like a doctor bought us coffee, or someone saw me in scrubs and thanked me on the street.”

Something she recalls from her fourth year in the nursing program helps her, too. “We talked a lot about nursing burnout and self-care. It is part of the reason I’ve been able to remain positive and hopeful. McMaster showed me it’s okay to be scared or uncertain, but despite this we also need to know how to take care of ourselves. I think those who don’t prioritize those coping mechanisms have really struggled. There’s a lot of talk about whether nurses have enough equipment, but not so much about the mental health of nurses.”

Have there been any silver linings to this crisis? “Many people have reached out to me who I haven’t heard from in a few years. There are so many people who are rooting for us. Some are offering to get us groceries or sending us gift cards for meal delivery, which is so kind and unexpected.”

There’s also been what she calls “a weird unifying part of the pandemic. We are all in the same boat.”

Alcock and her partner are trying to keep things simple with “walks around our neighbourhood or sitting on our patio enjoying the sunshine. I try to think of things I can still be grateful and hopeful for. We all have those things. We just need to make the time to find them.”

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