Confronting the virus: between horror story and fairy tale
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I played my part. I stayed home and put on a mask when going outside. However, after a month spent binging on Netflix and popcorn, rubbing door handles as fervently as Aladdin did with his magic lamp, and refraining from grocery shopping despite missing a key ingredient to recreate an appealing recipe from Pinterest, I was ready to play a more active role. This is when I saw a Facebook post looking to recruit several full-time casual cleaners for a month’s contract in a nursing home. It was as if the Batman sign had lit up Toronto’s sky, except that for me it took the shape of a fluffy toilet brush rather than a furry animal, and instead of fighting evil in a tight leathery outfit, I would don a bright yellow PPE gown to eradicate an invisible threat. Far less Instagramable (or fashionable) but I answered the call anyway.
After I signed my contract, I wondered how a girl like me, the archetype of the Virgo who couldn’t stand bacteria and was prone to hypochondria, a girl who only a couple of months prior converted her bedroom into a self-contained unit to isolate herself from any potential virus carrier, agreed to spend forty hours a week in a Covid positive environment. Why had I chosen to become a front line worker instead of opting for a job I could safely accomplish from the comfort of my home? A desire to help. Fulfilling my thirst for a more meaningful life. The wish to show support to my loved ones working in hospitals, more than merely through words and claps. Yes, all of these reasons. Plus one thing: curiosity! Could I do it?
On the first Monday of May, I reported for training at my new workplace. Another young woman was there with me. We were the last batch out of the half-dozen ‘chosen’ ones — or rather ‘available at short notice’ ones — hired to support the housekeeping team on payroll. The focus of this half-day introduction was first on how to properly cope with the PPE equipment: two different types of masks, a yellow-chick colored gown, blue rubber gloves with matching boots, and a shield. Mind you, the ‘shield’ was a transparent semi-rigid plastic screen, nothing cool. Something like those translucent cap visors popular in the nineties, except that these were to cover the entire face and not even available in colors. Not as fancy or impressive as a knight’s armor but “as effective” according to my boss, “…provided it’s properly fitted and regularly sanitized.” That sounded like the terms and conditions of any insurance policy: a lot of loopholes and exclusive clauses to leave the blame on the subscriber. I raised an eyebrow but this display of skepticism went unnoticed by the housekeeping manager, overly relieved to benefit from two extra sets of arms to help him ward off the outbreak and prevent the propagation of the virus in the rest of the nursing home.
Once the basic PPE training ended, the three of us exited the basement, where the housekeeping headquarters lay, and entered the accommodation grounds. Each of the three residential floors was divided into two sections, representing a total of ten to twelve rooms — single or double occupancy — per cleaner. We were led to the second floor and were taught the essentials of the job during a hands-on demonstration. In short, Clorox in all forms (spray, liquid, and wipes) was to be our best buddy for the month to come. There was no time pressure as long as all the assigned rooms, along with the common areas, were thoroughly cleaned at least once a day during the housekeeper’s eight hours shift. I remember thinking ‘that’s it? One disinfectant and zero time constraint… Easiest job E.V.E.R!’. Nothing compared to the pressure I once faced when hired as a housekeeper for a three-star hotel, having no less than five different cleaning agents and an allocated time of twenty minutes maximum to refresh a room at least twice as large.
As I started to relax, my attention was brought to a dark emerald green sign, the size of a medium concert ad, stamped next to the opposite door. It displayed the words ‘droplet & contact’ in the center of an octagon. Under it, was a list of ticked boxes reminding the reader to maintain proper hand hygiene and to wear a gown, gloves, procedure mask, along with eye protection within two meters of the patient. This deceptive sign was the local code to let the staff know that at least one resident in this room had been tested positive for Covid-19. Glancing at the rest of the corridor, I saw only a couple of these signs. ‘Ok, not that bad’. The atmosphere was peaceful in this mid-morning with only our voices to disturb the noiseless environment. This got me wondering if most residents had already passed away. But no, they were just in a deep sleep rather than the eternal one. I used to believe bingo was the favorite pass-time for the elderly; it turned out, dozing tops it. Still, even without any game of chance, this floor has been in luck. Only a few residents tested positive to the virus. I silently hoped, ‘May the odds be ever in your favor!’
Before releasing us for the day, the housekeeping manager presented the other girl and me with two options for our working schedule. One worker was needed on the second floor, alternating morning and evening shifts. The other was to be stationed on the fourth floor; that position consisted exclusively of morning shifts — 7 am to 3 pm. Being an early cuckoo I chose the latter one. The girl didn’t object and so the deal was sealed. Unable to hold my curiosity until the next morning, I requested a visit to my future quarters. My manager agreed and suggested we take the stairs.
I reached the last step panting heavily. My muscles had vanished, having spent the previous month without any physical activity other than a few daily yoga stretches. The mask wasn’t helping either. Upon hearing my heavy breathing, the head of housekeeping frowned and asked me if I was okay. My cheeks felt like a hot stove and I could sense moisture above my lips, but, full of pride from my former days as an avid runner, I nodded. ‘I’d rather die than admit my current (lack of!) fitness’. Trusting my words, the boss opened the heavy fire door to access the main corridor. Still out of breath, I followed him out of the staircase and into the resident’s dormitory, the other girl right behind me. My eyes surveyed the hallway. Green posters adorned almost every door. So this was the floor where the outbreak had occurred. Unlucky gambling for me! Hopefully better luck in love. Oh, wait, strict social distancing… with an added two weeks of self-isolation at the end of the contract due to my temporary status of front-line worker. No dating and just good deeds then. Well, these virtuous actions better grant me paradise!
I’m not colorblind but this forest of green signs looked very much red to me. I had been propelled in the danger zone. My jaws and neck stiffened and all my senses switched to a hyper-alert mode. I became suddenly conscious of the recurring background sound produced by respiratory machines. I also felt that the atmosphere was denser and the temperature higher on this floor (or maybe that was just the consequence of my impromptu exercise). Glancing to my right, I saw the face of my training buddy melting. She looked as if she’d seen a ghost. Was one of the unfortunate tenants visiting his old pals?
Suddenly, an alarm. Half-tone at first, then full blast. It seemed to be coming from the door we just passed, the one giving access to the stairway. I guessed it to be some sort of security system to prevent any resident from dashing out. My manager proceeded to enter the security code on a nearby number pad, but it didn’t make any difference. He repeated the process over and over, without achieving better results. A hoarse female voice raised from one of the rooms yelling, “Shut the noise!”. Alerted by the blast, a couple of caregivers approached us. One complained to my boss, “this number pad needs to be fixed; it’s getting worse by the day. This morning, I had to input the code at least eight times before the alarm stopped.”
I wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. There was actually nothing I could do. I had forgotten the code the same minute I learned it. Plus, I had bigger concerns. I still couldn’t catch my breath. On the contrary, each inhalation made things worse. My ears vibrated as if I had spent hours next to the sound system during a live metal concert. My head spun. My chest was about to cave in. My hands trembled. A couple of extra minutes like this and I would pass out, I knew it. ‘Why is this bloody door not opening? I’m trapped and I’m about to become the youngest person to die inside this nursing home. Great. What a credential to add to my resume. I already picture my funeral plaque ‘Aurelie — full of surprises, till the very end’’. (Full of sarcasm too, but unfortunately nobody will ever know.)
In that instant, I remembered my previous request. ‘God, please forget what I said. Paradise can wait; both my trips to Cancun and Heaven can wait. Cancel also what I said earlier about preferring to die over acknowledging being out of shape. It was a mistake. And you know what, I’ll get back to the gym. I’ll even quit eating chocolate…for a week… I mean to start with. Anything, please just spare me! I’m too young to die. Take one of these elder — ‘ I bit my lips. Ooops, that wasn’t very Christian of me. Nor very fair. The elderly were on the edge already. With the hope to take my words back, I had thrown random promises in the air — and almost thrown someone under the bus too. I swallowed a mix of saliva between two gasps for air. I needed to regain control of myself.
Blacking out my environment, I focused all my vital force on slowing down my breath. I repeated to myself ‘I’m okay. I’m okay’. At first, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Time was dragging. They say it feels that way when you end up in long-term care. I would have never guessed the rule was also valid for staff — undergoing training, furthermore. Eventually, after numerous attempts, my boss managed to silence the alarm. And in the meantime, my breath stopped competing with the 5G network speed. I was going to live…at least for now. I may die from Covid-19 after having sucked in this virus-loaded air to the full capacity of my lungs, but that would be tomorrow’s problem.
Later that Monday, as I rested at home, I received a text from the other girl who completed the training with me ‘This is not the right job for me so I won’t come back tomorrow. All the best to you’. I stared at the screen, perplexed. Should I do the same? I hadn’t even considered it. It was probably too late anyway, now that I’ve been exposed firsthand to the virus. ‘I may as well roll with the housekeeping cart, at least I’ll conclude this work assignment with a healthier bank account, if not a healthier body’.
I returned to the facility the next day. And the following. And so on, five days a week, for four weeks. Once passed my traumatic confrontation with the fourth floor, reaching there (by elevator only!) became a pleasant routine. I would even have said ‘a chilled routine’ if it wasn’t for the full-blast heaters. I deeply appreciated the collaboration between team members and quickly grew fond of the residents. Being one of their limited human interactions of the day, I spared time to socialize with each of them — a task widely facilitated by the fact that almost half had passed away before my arrival (fortunately, none under my watch). Lots of their behaviors reminded me of my grandmother who recently ‘died of old age’ in a similar place. In a way, this job helped me mourn her; time with them made up for the time I couldn’t spend with her.
Moreover, the seniors of this nursing home provided me with great entertainment. I smiled broadly spotting a resident watering her artificial plants. I got amused hearing another one playing the matchmaker between the various staff members. I felt moved to tears when a heartfelt compliment lit up a resident’s face after three weeks of solemnity. I melted whenever I had to turn down a request to go outdoors. I shook as a strong man with mental disabilities barked at me for giving him a mask and got verbally abused by several ‘ladies’ (an overstatement given the recurrent flow of insults flying out of their mouths). I trembled as I helped a frail woman close to falling. I followed trails of candy wrappers and investigated who couldn’t target the toilet bowl properly. I tried practicing a combination of Russian and improvised sign language with an old gentleman who couldn’t communicate in English. I also educated the most receptive ones on basic hygiene principles and repeatedly asked another one not to try to go to the bathroom alone as her failed attempt always ended up in her soiling her wheelchair (and guess who cleaned it up?!). I watched the residents brightening up when receiving calls from their families and did my best to navigate in the unknowns of the future, sharing positive thoughts without giving them false hope. Comedy, romance, drama, horror, foreign art, thriller, educational, SciFi,… The whole Netflix catalog was there. And the performances, very real.
Ultimately, the more time I spent there and the more the virus blurred into the background. I remained mindful of it — who wouldn’t, when donning and doffing a whole PPE gear twelve times a day — but this ‘framework’ didn’t hold my entire focus, neither bumped me down. I had not only survived in a Covid positive environment, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in this long-term care facility. How did I overcome my fear? I believe a lot had to do with the staff. According to the saying, we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with; for a month I spent most of my awake time moving around brave souls, and as a result, their courage rubbed off on me (fortunately that’s something the PPE gear didn’t stop). Various techniques also helped to dissipate my concerns about the virus. Audiobooks on overcoming fear and traumas, hypnosis sessions, mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, gratitude, positive affirmations, and yoga, tremendously supported this mindset shift. Reducing my intake of TV news broadcasts made a big difference too. Nonetheless, the real pivoting point probably happened when I got first confronted with my full-fledge anxiety, the moment I stepped into the corridor of the fourth floor.
Facing my fear then, made me realize I also had the power to overcome it… and that is the most beautiful ending I could have wished for. A modern-life fairy tale.
Many thanks to the Annette Street Writer’s Group
Picture credit: Thanks to Unsplash (Daan Stevens for the top image and Tom Barrett for the bottom one).