Faces of a Pandemic: Shining a Light on the Everyday Heroes of the Covid-19 Crisis
Registered nurse Marg Miller came out of retirement to pitch in at a nursing home she worked at for 12 years. Photo: Kim Cormier/Getty Images
As Canada battles COVID-19, there are some extraordinary stories from coast to coast that shine a light on the resiliency and empathy of everyday people.
Every crisis has its leaders, and there have been no shortage of them in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, self-isolating at his Rideau Cottage residence after wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau was diagnosed with the infection caused by the novel coronavirus, has been stepping outside to give socially distant daily briefings, even on weekends. Ontario Premier Doug Ford received kudos from his new best friend, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who likened their conversations on COVID-19 to therapy sessions. Former federal health minister and MP Dr. Jane Philpott put on a mask, face shield, gloves and a gown and went back to work at a Markham, Ont., COVID-19 assessment centre in March. “This is what we train for,” said Philpott, the new director of the Queen’s University School of Medicine in Kingston, Ont. In British Columbia, fan clubs have sprung up for provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, whose face has been emblazoned on T-shirts and even inspired a John Fluevog limited edition shoe.
Companies are stepping up, switching from making car parts to ventilators, spirits to sanitizer and down jackets to protective gowns. A countrywide community of makers with 3D printers have been getting up in the middle of the night to hit the print button on yet another plastic band for face shields. Medical students are running errands and babysitting health-care workers’ kids.
There are millions of people doing trillions of things to help the country get through this, so it’s impossible to thank just one. We’ll bang a pot for the true heroes who are risking their lives on the front lines to try to heal the sick. In the meantime, here are just a few of the extraordinary stories we uncovered across the country.
Respecting Their Elders
A raven is cawing, songbirds are chirping and wind chimes tinkle softly in the background as Hilistis Pauline Waterfall describes her backyard idyll on Campbell Island overlooking Lana Passage on British Columbia’s Central Coast. A plane buzzes overhead, and a tugboat chugs through the water as she explains over the phone there is nothing between her house in Bella Bella and Japan, save a handful of little islands to the west. The 74-year-old Heiltsuk Nation elder and knowledge keeper is practising social distancing, but she can still jump into her 23-foot cruiser, captained by her husband, and drop anchor pretty much anywhere along the island’s pristine coast.
“There are many nooks and crannies and bays that are so secluded that you can just go and take a crab trap and just drop it, and sit and read a book and bask in the sunshine or listen to the rain and just stay there until you’re renewed.”
Vessels of another kind prompted the 1,600-member Heiltsuk Nation to batten down the hatches. Despite a local travel advisory enacted by the First Nation on March 15, in early April five sailboats and yachts flying American and Canadian flags docked on nearby Denny Island at the Shearwater Resort and Marina. It is a popular pit stop for pleasure boats coming from Seattle and Vancouver to Haida Gwaii and Alaska that need to stock up on fuel, food and beverages.
It sent a shiver of fear through Heiltsuk Tribal Council’s elected chief Marilyn Slett because the R.W. Large Memorial Hospital in Bella Bella has just one bed with a ventilator, four acute-care beds, one trauma bed in ER and eight patients in long-term care beds.
At risk are 220 elders who are living repositories of local history, customs, language, traditional healing and food gathering. Just 30 are fluent Heiltsuk speakers, and all of them are over 75.
“Just listening to stories from some of our elders [about] the Spanish flu [and smallpox], our populations were devastated by these pandemics and reduced to a couple of hundred people. Tribes and families were wiped out,” the chief said. “That’s what’s driving us to do everything we can do within our power to keep our communities safe.”
In 2019, Slett said 400 visitors tied up at the Bella Bella government wharf and the Shearwater Marina, and marine traffic always ramps up in April as American and Canadians sail the Inside Passage to Alaska, eco-tourism boats head to the Great Bear Rainforest and charters bring sport fishers dreaming of trophy salmon.
The chief knows people can infect others even if they have no COVID-19 symptoms, and she knows older people with underlying health issues are at a higher risk of developing life-threatening complications.
Even though the U.S. border is closed to all non-essential traffic until at least May 21, B.C. has flattened the curve to the point where government officials are talking about relaxing the lockdown even as epidemiologists warn there will likely be a second wave of infections in the fall.
“It’s alarming because we’re a small community. We have a small hospital with limited supplies, and it’s also a long-term care centre for elders,” Slett said.
In the meantime, air service to the island has been suspended, the SeaBus to Denny Island has been cancelled and a risk management officer meets everyone getting off the B.C. Ferry, reminding them to self-isolate for 14 days. Signs are posted on the Bella Bella wharf and Shearwater Marina, and the Heiltsuk Tribal Council’s Facebook page features photos of matriarchs along with this message: “Staying home is an #actoflove. This is how we keep them safe.” On April 26, the travel advisory became a ban, and at press time, no one was allowed on or off the island until May 11.
Even though there had been no COVID-19 cases in the Heiltsuk Nation by early May, traditions that anchor the community had been upended by the lockdown.
Waterfall’s family usually gathers at her 93-year-old mother’s house to divvy up the cream-coloured balls of herring roe off the weighted kelp and hemlock boughs they suspend in the sea for fish to lay their eggs on. But this year one of her brothers processed the harvest and hand-delivered it to family and community members who were too frail or incapacitated to leave their homes. The commercial harvest, worth about $6 million to the community, was cancelled, since the export market – mainly Japan – was in turmoil.
When five Heiltsuk died, unrelated to COVID-19, over a month in March and April, Waterfall said funerals were broadcast over the local radio station, and family members drove the deceased around the community on trucks so people could say their goodbyes from the safety of their homes.
And although the pandemic had yet to reach Heiltsuk shores, self-isolation and social distancing were stirring up painful childhood memories.
Waterfall had just turned 12 when she was sent to a residential school in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, where “the language was strapped out of me,” and she only got mail from home every month or so. Her father had been seven, her mother five and her grandmother about 12 when they were taken away.
“We know isolation,” Waterfall said. “This is not new to us, and we understand totally what it’s like to be completely cut off from family and culture and rituals. Our life, as we knew it, was completely upended.”
But resiliency has been baked into their DNA. Heiltsuk genesis stories tell how their people took refuge on a spit of land when the seas froze over thousands of years ago.
“When I first heard the story about how our people survived the ice age, my Western-educated mind was thinking, ‘How is that possible?’” Waterfall said. Then, in 2015, a team of archeologists sifting through the soil on tiny Triquet Island to the south uncovered remnants of a hearth. Carbon dating showed some charcoal flakes were 14,000 years old. “We have at least 700 generations based on that archeological dig,” said Waterfall. “We have origin stories that place us here since the beginning of time as we know it.”
The Heiltsuk once numbered 10,000 and lived in 55 distinct communities across what is now known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Now, about 2,700 Heiltsuk live in a handful of communities on 35,000 square kilometres of traditional territory, with 1,600 on reserve in Bella Bella.
“I can go on to describe many ways that brought us to our knees,” Waterfall said in a video recorded for the Heiltsuk Nation website, reminding members it wasn’t just disease that tested their survival, but government-decreed bans on language, culture and fishing, not to mention a 100-year history of sending children and youth to faraway residential schools.
“While we may have weakened in our numbers, we’ve never given up during these dark chapters of Heiltsuk history and life. The teachings and the values that were passed on through these 700-plus generations helped us to survive. Some of these teachings are being practised today. They include sharing what we have, supporting those in need, taking care of each other, being kind and generous, lifting and honouring each other, taking care of ourselves rather than depending on others to take care of us.”
Waterfall knows the Heiltsuk will endure the COVID-19 pandemic and does not fear it because, for one thing, the traditional medicines she makes helps keep the immune system strong. The First Nation’s history of caring for elders and respecting them will shield their most vulnerable. Slett said they have set up a shopping service for the elderly, who can call in their order and have it delivered to their doorstep. An elders advocate at the health centre will pick up medication and check in on them, and another elected councillor calls the hereditary chiefs – all of them elders – every week to see if they need anything and drops off care packages.
“We acknowledge that our life comes from that generation and that they took care of us,” Waterfall explained. “And so there’s this teaching of returning that care to them.”
That considerate nature extends to strangers who are now banned from Campbell Island. Waterfall said their teachings emphasize hospitality. If a sailor runs out of gas or food, they can count on the Heiltsuk to take care of them.
Boaters can use a 1-800 number to call in an order to the band store, and gloved and masked volunteers will meet them at the wharf and hand it off.
“If push came to shove, we would find a way to get fuel to them if they were stranded.”
Gift of Life
Dr. Donald Arnold’s voice was hoarse from making and taking so many calls, and he paused several times to clear his throat and take a sip of water. The emails had been coming at all hours of the day and night, and the hematologist had been awake to answer them, even at 2 a.m.
Sleep had been elusive; there was one day when the director of the McMaster Centre for Transfusion Research was only able to grab a nap.
As co-lead on the world’s largest clinical trial to see if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help sick people get better, the pressure was on to get it started, and Arnold, 47, was overseeing a million moving parts.
“The last 10 days have been non-stop,” the doctor said in a telephone interview in April from his home in Hamilton. “It’s been quite a marathon for sure.”
Canada’s two blood suppliers, Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec, will take blood donations from about 1,200 recently recovered COVID-19 patients across the country, extract the light-yellow plasma with an apheresis machine and return the rest to the donors. The so-called convalescent plasma will be sent to nearby hospitals, where about 800 COVID-19 patients on oxygen and at risk of more serious complications will get the antibody-rich donations intravenously. The remaining 400 patients, the control group, will not get any plasma, although either group could be enrolled in one of more than a dozen clinical trials testing the efficacy of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria treatment hyped by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Convalescent Plasma for COVID-19 Research trial is called CONCOR for short, “although we like to pronounce it conquer,” Arnold joked. He is leading the countrywide effort along with the University of Montreal’s Philippe Bégin and the University of Toronto’s Jeannie Callum, and it will include patients at more than 40 hospitals.
The theory is people who have recently recovered from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), will have proteins called antibodies in their plasma that can help sick patients fight the infection.
“Within a week or two, the typical kind of immune response to a virus like this would be that there would be high levels of antibodies in the blood. They would linger around for many weeks, maybe even 12 weeks or longer.”
It’s been tried before with some success, first in 1919 near the end of the Spanish flu epidemic and, since then, in Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Ebola patients. In 2020, two Chinese studies – one with five ventilated patients and one with 10 – showed convalescent plasma helped maintain or increase levels of COVID-19-neutralizing antibodies, but the sample size was too small to be significant, and there was no control group.
“There’s precedent for this in other diseases, other pandemics, where it’s been tried and had reasonable success as well,” Arnold explained. “But what’s really lacking is a well-done, adequately sized trial that would say if this works or not.”
There are unknowns: the levels of antibodies needed in plasma donations; side effects like the possibility of ramping up the infection instead of quelling it; and transfusion reactions.
“These are people who have to be admitted to hospital. They need additional oxygen and, if that’s the case, they’re eligible for the trial. Our hope is that we can reduce the number of people who ultimately need intensive care or need ventilators and improve overall outcomes and survive,” Arnold said.
They hope to treat their first patient in May and finish the trial within four or five months, with results available two weeks after.
Call of Duty
Northern New Brunswick is known for its natural splendour, including the picturesque Restigouche River and the lobster-fishing paradise known as Chaleur Bay. It also has moose, and lots of them.
Driving at night is not for the faint-hearted because moose have no natural predators and stand their ground in the road. A collision is usually fatal for both animal and human. In winter, when moose are scarce, snow and ice make the roads treacherous.
That hasn’t stopped 85-year-old registered nurse Marg Miller from climbing in her car at 11 p.m. when her shift ends at the Villa Renaissance nursing home in Dalhousie and driving 30 minutes on the old highway to her home in Jacquet River.
In fact, the route she takes is her one concession to safety.
“I never take the [new] highway at night,” said Miller. She retired in November after 12 years at the villa but returned to work in March to help out during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had thankfully bypassed the long-term care home as of early May. “I always drive the old road. Mind you, there are moose on the old road, too, sometimes.”
This year, she missed the snowstorms and the ice pellets and spent three weeks in the Calgary area with her daughter over Christmas. Miller returned in January to get her house ready to sell, and that’s when her friend and Villa Renaissance colleague, registered nurse Kim Cormier, called to say they were short-staffed and asked her to consider coming back to work.
At first, she said no. As soon as the house sold, she would be moving in with her daughter, Marcy Jones, in the town of Okotoks, about 20 kilometres south of Calgary. Then the COVID-19 pandemic touched down in Canada, and New Brunswick reported its first travel-related case on March 11. By March 16, the nursing home was on lockdown, with non-essential visitors banned, health checks for all employees arriving to work and masks for all workers.
“I felt they needed me and I was healthy. Why would I not go to help?” Miller said in a recent telephone interview. “I didn’t make a hasty decision. I knew what was going to happen and, if I was exposed to it, well, so be it. I thought if I die, I’m gonna die. I’ve had a good life and why should I sit at home?”
Cormier, who like Miller is a nurse supervisor at the Villa, said her co-worker can’t sit still and is always on the go. “She’s an avid reader but, like she said, you can only read so many books.”
Cormier described Miller as a “bubbly” person who really connects with residents. She’s the kind of nurse who, when she was working at a long-term care facility in Calgary with a lot of German-speaking clients, took language lessons so she could exchange a few words in their native tongue.
So when she met a new resident at Villa Renaissance who was “a little upset,” she did what she calls “a little history on him” and discovered he was a Second World War vet who had served in Germany.
“I said good day in German to him right away and, well, his eyes lit up and all that jazz.” She also sang him “Ach, du lieber Augustin,” an Austrian folk song popular with beer drinkers at Germany’s famed Oktoberfest.
“I’m 60, and she could run circles around me, seriously,” added Cormier.
Miller is still on top of the job, even though the workload has increased. They have to meet pharmacists at the door and wipe down medication; carry a work cellphone at all times so family members can get updates and talk with residents; and reassure those who may be anxious and afraid.
“She’s sharp as a tack, oh my goodness,” said Cormier. “That’s all I can say is – oh, my goodness! – She’s a ball of energy.”
This isn’t the first time Miller has retired. When she had Marcy in 1962, she left her job as an OR nurse in Calgary and stayed home for 17 years. Then she went back to work, which is how she ended up in geriatric nursing. “I thought it was very rewarding nursing, and the residents always seemed to be so appreciative of what you did.”
And then, in 2004, she and her late husband, Bill, retired to Jacquet River, where she grew up, and not far from sisters Ann, 78, Jenny, 80, and Theresa, 93. She was volunteering at the Dalhousie nursing home when they discovered she was an RN and begged her to come work for them. So she came out of retirement around 2007, moving over to Villa Renaissance when the new $23 million 90-bed residence opened about a year ago. She worked her last shift in November 2019.
Now, Miller is the oldest practising registered nurse in the province, according to the New Brunswick Nurses Union.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I do a good job and I enjoy it doing it. They also pay me, too.”
Too Close for Comfort
After Rodger Gollogly, 73, heard the Canadian government was urging snowbirds to come home, the retired hotel owner and his wife, Susan, closed their winter home in Tucson, Ariz., packed up the car and hit the road with their golden retriever, Bella.
It was March 19, two days after Tucson’s mayor declared a local emergency, eight days after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and 13 days after the state confirmed its first case acquired by community spread.
On the three-day drive home to Gananoque, Ont., about 35 kilometres east of Kingston, the Canadian couple were extremely careful. They brought their own food and ate it in the car, pumped gas with gloves on and, both nights they stopped in hotels, Susan stripped the bed and put on their own sheets. She also cleaned high-contact surfaces like light switches, remote control and doorknobs with antiseptic wipes.
They zipped through the border and got home Saturday, March 21.
“We did everything that we were supposed to do, hoping that we wouldn’t get this,” Rodger said in a telephone interview. “Sure enough, by that Sunday, we became ill, not knowing where we got this or how we got it.”
By Monday, Susan had a mild headache and a fever and felt weak. On Friday, she drove into Kingston to be tested for COVID-19; the test came back positive. “My wife could hardly walk up the stairs, she was that weak,” he said. They were both coughing, and he had “an achy body, like a truck ran over you.” Rodger drove himself in for a test on Saturday but, before he could get the results, he was coughing and choking so badly he was on his knees in the bathroom. The next Monday, March 30, they called an ambulance, and paramedics took him to Kingston General Hospital because his blood oxygen levels were so low.
“The doctors were all over me and had chest X-rays done right away. They did blood work. They were just amazing,” Rodger said, taking pauses to cough five days after he had been discharged on April 10.
Although he had pneumonia, he didn’t need a ventilator and recovered with oxygen delivered through nasal prongs.
“I could hear people across the hall coughing,” he said, adding the whole floor had been cleared to treat COVID-19 patients, and there were about a dozen people there at the same time.
Meanwhile, Susan was coping at home on her own with their dog, and her sister was dropping food off at the door.
The non-smoker, who has no pre-existing health conditions and takes no medication, was in pretty good shape before he got COVID-19.
“[The doctor] said, ‘You’re damn lucky you’re as healthy as you are because if you weren’t, this would take you down.’”
Rodger, who lost 15 pounds with COVID-19, was looking forward to taking Bella for a walk since the dog had been cooped up in the house. By the end of April, he felt well enough to take the dog up and down his street, but it wasn’t until early May – almost six weeks after his symptoms first appeared – that Rodger felt 100 per cent recovered and able to take on the strenuous chore of cutting the grass.
“The main thing is we’ve got to pay attention to the regulations and stay home. And you have to have good health … If you got asthma or health issues, it’s going to be difficult.”
Facing Our Fears
We’ve all experienced it: dread as we head out to the grocery store; COVID-19 nightmares that infiltrate our sleep; irritability that creeps in as the pandemic drags on for yet another month.
But for University of British Columbia stress researcher Anita DeLongis, the more data she can gather, the better. The health psychologist launched a real-time study on March 17 to see how people are responding to our new reality, where the spectre of death hangs in the air.
By late April, she had 5,000 people in Canada and the U.S. telling her how they feel each week, filling out an online questionnaire about their thoughts and behaviours. UBC psychologist Nancy Sin is collaborating with a diary sub-study, checking in several times a day for a week with some respondents.
“This will go on long enough that you can watch it unfold and watch how people change over time and their reactions,” DeLongis said, noting they are already seeing an increase in alcohol consumption.
It’s called ecological momentary assessment, and DeLongis, the director of UBC’s health psychology program, hopes her data will help public health officials refine their messaging in future pandemics or natural disasters to ensure people carry out crucial health behaviours like washing hands, physical distancing and self-isolation.
“In psychology, we know that when people are afraid of anything, whether you’re treating an elevator phobia or snake phobia or whatever, if … they’re exposed to those things over time, they become less fearful.”
The key is to focus on empathy because those who care about others have the highest compliance with health advisories that keep the novel coronavirus at bay.
After analyzing responses from the first 3,000 participants in April, she found non-empaths “were not engaging in social distancing unless they felt personally threatened.” She’s seeing incidents of aggressive behaviour, like the man in Kelowna who was charged with aggravated assault for spitting on a police officer as he was being arrested and a woman in Revelstoke who declared the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax and coughed on a deli manager after he asked her to step back from other customers.
DeLongis is particularly concerned about how older people are faring, given their usual social supports – going to bingo, playing bridge, babysitting grandchildren, working out at the gym and visiting the library – are out of bounds.
“We would really like to reach out to people in their 80s, for example, and better understand their experiences because the loneliness that is experienced later in life due to social isolation can be quite profound,” said DeLongis, who is 62. It is compounded by unfamiliarity with technology like the Houseparty app or Zoom, where younger generations are connecting face to face via video.
“It gets under the skin, like stress does, to impact people’s health.”
Even if they do use games marketed to older people as brain boosters, DeLongis said previous research shows the most important way to improve cognitive health is social interaction. And she thinks that helping others or feeling helpful may improve their overall health.
She and her husband, who is 68, read stories to their three-year-old granddaughter over Facebook video chat, and “she’s quite come to love the nana and grandpa reading.” DeLongis believes that, tracked over time, they will see a difference in older respondents’ moods during weeks when they were getting or giving more support to others.
When it comes to mental health, one of the highest risk groups is people with neurotic tendencies. For those who tend to catastrophize, “This is their worst nightmare because one of the hallmarks of neuroticism is that you have a heightened experience of negative effect.”
As for introverts, DeLongis dismissed the idea that the pandemic is their dream scenario.
“Introvert doesn’t mean that you don’t need people around you,” the psychologist said, explaining that social isolation may make it even more difficult for them to get the kind of social interaction they need.
There will be trauma, it will be profound and it will affect all generations, just as the 1918 Spanish flu killed two of DeLongis’s great-grandmothers, and her grandparents were sent to orphanages where they were abused. But governments have to focus on saving lives, reducing the coronavirus threat and getting people back to work. All three of those priorities will, in the short term, improve our mental health.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2020 issue with the headline, “Faces of a Pandemic,” p. 32