Retired health-care workers return to the front line
By Sue Tiffin
After she graduated as a nurse in 1971, Jeanette Gibbons spent 15 years working in a neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in Hamilton before moving to Haliburton County in 1986 to run a resort on Little Hawk Lake with her husband.
The life change offered a break from the
intense and emotional atmosphere of the NICU, but a few years later,
Gibbons found herself donning scrubs again when she returned to nursing,
this time at the Minden hospital.
“It was like learning all over again,” she said of the experience. “I had concentrated my career on pediatrics and infant care, and neonatal, and so here all of a sudden I was in an emergency department with adults and traumas and heart attacks and I was so used to premature babies for the last 15 years, and these small little quantities of medications and volumes of IV and so on, it was a learning experience.”
Besides a difference in patients she was seeing, Gibbons was also experiencing rural health care.
“We did everything for ourselves,” she said. “I’d had all the luxuries of throwaway equipment, you know, you’d use it once and throw it away, and here we had to sterilize things ourselves and package things ourselves. It was just a really different way of nursing, apart from a big hospital.”
The experience was one that she cherished, especially the relationships between staff, many she held onto even after retiring from the profession in 2012.
“It was such a close camaraderie, it definitely had its benefits, there was no question,” she said.
of the time lapsed, Gibbons didn’t have an up-to-date nursing licence
when the call came for health-care workers to re-enter the field as the
spread of coronavirus was anticipated to surge in Ontario hospitals. She
tried to find a way in which she could help, including attempting to
get in touch with Telehealth, when a former colleague noted that
Haliburton Highlands Health Services was looking for people to act as
screeners – questioning and observing patients as they enter the
hospital to assess possible coronavirus infection.
“You always have what you know,” said Gibbons. “It’s been part of your life for 40 years, it’s always there in your head, right?”
Gibbons is one of more than
40 people: nurses, personal support workers, housekeeping, maintenance,
non-clinical screeners and observers: a position that functions as a
basic safety one-to-one support for patients or residents, to be hired
or re-hired by HHHS to act as local support alongside the front line
“We are looking to fill positions immediately,” Stephanie MacLaren, VP, community programs, Haliburton Highlands Health Service, told the Times. “We have increased our screening practices, and are working towards being able to maintain separation in our staff teams between acute/emergency department and long-term care – and across both our Haliburton and Minden sites. This requires up-staffing in clinical or direct care areas as well as support services (housekeeping, maintenance etc.). We have created a new acute care unit in our Minden facility where there previously was none. The demand is great. We have expanded hours for any existing staff that are able to take on additional shifts and have outreached to the community for health-care workers, screeners, and observers to work in both Haliburton and Minden sites.”
Though her family wasn’t initially pleased with Gibbons, who
is almost 70, returning to work during a global pandemic, she said that
after speaking with HHHS human resources, addressing concerns and being
able to choose the length of her shift, she was pleased to be back “in
the middle of it all.”
“You know, we go out and we go to the supermarket even though we limit it,” she said. “I felt far more protected in this job than I may be even going to the supermarket.”
said she is well-clad in goggles or glasses, mask and gown, is behind
plexi-glass, and keeps a distance from incoming patients as she asks
them the screening questions related to their visit and symptoms.
Visiting patients are asked to use sanitizer, and are offered a mask, at
which point Gibbons takes their temperature.
“As I go up, I’m completely clad so I don’t really worry about what I’m going up to,” she said.
She then gives her assessment to the attending nurse – a different process is undertaken with those who are immediately presenting with known symptoms of COVID-19, but still one in which Gibbons feels protected.
“And I thought, you know what, it’s good for me because otherwise I’d be home, watching this stuff all day instead of doing something,” she said. “It would lead to a lot of inactivity. I mean, really, going out for walks and so forth, even that’s frowned on unless you’re certainly not near other people.”
Gibbons said seeing news reports of others who have returned to help throughout the province – including an 85-year-old nurse – has been inspiring.
“So I thought, you know what, it’d be
really great to see everyone again, it’ll give me a boost, emotionally,
mentally and physically to be able to feel like I’m helping, and
reconnect – they were my coworkers for many many years,” she said. “I’m
meeting new people, and I’m seeing old patients that I’ve known
Gibbons is humble – noting that the front line workers deserve much credit for the work they are doing – and feels she has gained much personally from the experience.
“I’m finding it very rejuvenating for me,” she said. “I’m enjoying it. And I don’t feel that I’ve got so much responsibility that my nursing has to be on the top of it, but my background has enabled me to see patients, when I’m talking to patients, pick up other things that I’ve had to be aware of in the past. That first assessment, that first look, and what you see, can tell a lot. I think it’s really good for me. It’s another boost for me at this stage of my life, that I feel I’m back in the workforce a bit for a short period of time or however long it needs to be, and I think it’s been very positive for me and I’ve been able to help out at the same time.”
Rob Luke was a paramedic in this area, and in Lindsay, for a
total of about 30 years beginning in the ’70s. He started out as a
small engine mechanic and marine mechanic, but then at age 27 decided he
needed a change, which led to him going back to school to become a
“And from then on it’s just been a ride,” he said.
Luke retired in 2001.
“I’ve been working around with different things, more or less retired about four times now,” said Luke, who described himself as having a Type A personality. “I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, so I can’t sit for very long. I have to do something, and it might as well be something constructive, so that’s where we’re at right now.”
Luke said as he kept up on the news, he saw that the reach of the coronavirus was spreading toward Ontario.
“As time went on, I started hearing about some of the nursing homes [throughout the province], some of the problems they were having, the fact that they were short-staffed,” said Luke. “... And our front line people right now, they’re up to it. They’ve done a hell of a job. So it’s only behooving on my part to say, OK, if you need my help, I’m here, here’s my number, give me a call, I’ll see what I can do. That’s basically what it came down to.”
Through HHHS, Luke became a screener at Minden hospital, but like Gibbons, he said he’s only one of many doing what they can to help.
“There’s people out there that are just normal everyday people that are standing in for screening. They don’t have the knowledge that maybe some of us old people have, but they’re still standing up and saying, oh, I’ll do that, I’ll deliver this, I’ll take that there, I’ll go out here and do this. There’s lots of good heroes out there. There’s always that extra pair of hands that you need. There’s always somebody that can drive somebody or drive equipment places.”
And like Gibbons, he was quick to herald the efforts of the
front line medical staff, noting that he feels safe after having been
given “good equipment, good information.” Staff working in clinical
areas are masked for the duration of their shift, with access to full
PPE when required. They’re actively screened, with temperatures taken,
at beginning and end of shift, and are provided scrubs for each shift,
which are laundered internally.
“I’m just doing screening, that’s all I do, and that’s it,” he said. “I’m just there to make sure the staff that are doing the job have the time to do the job properly without having to run out and do screening and then come back in and run back and forth. All I’m there to do is, safety valve, taking some of the heat off, that’s it. Nothing fantastic. Just help.”
the need for people to understand simple efforts like physical
distancing, washing hands and recommendations from public health
“It’s the simple things, the small things that are going to make all the difference in the world,” he said. “Staying at home when you need to be staying at home, washing your hands, keeping your distance and all these small things. They all add up. They’re just giving us a break until we find out – until the scientists will find out – if they can make a good vaccine for this. And then from there on in, it’s just going to be another one of those checks in history. OK, like polio, things like that, that have plagued us in the past, we’ve found a cure for that and we’ve kept on going. It’s science and technology that right now is going to [come] to the forefront to abate this thing anyway, so all this distancing and everything else is buying us time and time is all we need.”
The extra hands on deck are offering HHHS time to prepare for a possible surge of COVID-19 cases, and the hiring of additional support services staff is one initiative, alongside separating facilities for COVID and non-COVID-related needs, limiting multiple work sites for staff and expanding hospital acute care unit offerings that has enabled the local health-care team to feel more prepared for what could come.
“Health human resources in a rural
community has always been a challenge but the increased demand due to
our facility separations and not allowing for cross-overs between sites
has certainly put a great demand on us organizationally,” said MacLaren.
“We are planning in preparation for the COVID surge – and luckily have
not been hit by it heavily at this time. However, we need to be
The answer to how many extra hires the health team needs is unknown at this time.
“I think that is the biggest challenge for us right now, there is much that is unknown,” said MacLaren. “We would like to have a robust staff complement to support our COVID response. We have to plan for many potentialities, including staff illness, that will have an impact on our available human resources both in hospital, LTC, and our community programs, so we will continue recruiting.”
Though Gibbons and Luke
are humble in their efforts to help, MacLaren said people stepping up
now have answered the call to serve.
“The dedication and commitment to patient care that we see across the organization with our health-care providers is reflected in the sentiments of our new hires,” said MacLaren. “This is a calling for them – being of service to their community in a time of need resonates very deeply for them.”