Arts·Pandemic Diaries

How working at a hospital during COVID-19 has taught me to look for silver linings

Writer Peter Ash was struggling at first, but then something unexpected happened: he started to find acceptance.

Writer Peter Ash was struggling at first, but something unexpected happened: he started to find acceptance

Toronto Western Hospital, one of the hospitals where Peter Ash works. (Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

I love my job. I really do. Even in the midst of the awfulness of COVID-19, I'm reminded every day why I do what I do. But what I've been surprised by is the lessons it has taught me about how I can deal with depression and worry, and help me adjust to living through a global pandemic.

I work in hospital administration, and my daily life has been consumed with planning how to manage a surge of COVID-19 patients in our ICUs, telling families they can't visit their loved ones, and worrying about nurses burning out. In many ways, I'm an observer of the real struggle. I'm not a clinician; I'm not working with patients directly. Instead, I am working on plans for how to manage this all and how to support the frontline staff. Even so, I find the work meaningful and I am grateful to be doing it.

What I've witnessed over the past two months is my colleagues coming in every day and stepping up, doing what needs to be done without complaining. They have the hardest jobs in the world at the best of times, and through all this, they are providing care to patients who are incredibly sick with this virus. I've been humbled by both their professionalism and compassion. It has also reminded me how lucky we are to have our public health care system and how much I believe in it.

However, beyond all that silver lining I'm trying to find, the timing of this all wasn't great for me. Not like there's ever a good time for a pandemic, but right before all this happened, I was getting pretty down. Nothing serious, just the usual mild depression that I tend to experience a few times a year. But of course, entering a global pandemic with some mild depression isn't the best way to set yourself up for success.

Early on, I gave up on making this some sort of magic time to be creative and productive. I know I am not going to write a book or finally learn French, and I'm totally cool with that. The only new hobby I've picked up is excessive and unnecessary online shopping, thanks to the bad influence of an enabling friend. To be honest, if I can make it out of this without going through a deep depression or full breakdown, I will call that a personal success.

But even that doesn't seem like a sure thing. The past eight weeks have been up and down for me, and in early April, I was really starting to spiral. Of course, I worry about people getting sick, the strain on our health care system, and the hardships many of us face. But on a more personal and maybe selfish level, I'm also thinking about my own world and what's going to happen in my life and with my relationships. My mental health gives me loads of irrational worries on a good day, so this has just been primetime for all of my inner dysfunctions.

But I noticed a couple of weeks ago that maybe I was starting to feel better. The volume on my inner worries, sadness, and fear of having no control felt turned down, and for the first time in a while, I had moments of feeling like things were, given the context, okay.

Peter Ash at work. (Peter Ash)

At first, I wasn't sure what changed — but the more I reflected, I started to realize that what I'm seeing at work is teaching me how to handle this all. I'm learning from my colleagues and the amazing work they do, and I'm learning from our collective response as a health care system.

A couple of things stand out. The first and probably biggest thing is accepting that I have no control over this. Health care providers don't always have control over what happens, especially when there are so many unknowns with this virus, but they take the information they have, make the best decisions they can with it, and go forward, trusting their judgment along the way. Over the past several weeks, I've sensed myself slowly accepting this letting go of the idea of control. Instead of panicking because I can't control things like I was at the beginning, I have been waking up every morning and focusing on what I need to do, actively trying to not worry what happens next.

The second thing I'm learning from working in health care is that little things count — a lot. I recently spoke with a nurse who was telling me about her good day. What made it so good was hearing her patient speak a few words after being extubated. This echoes what I hear from others — that helping patients achieve small goals is so powerful. Right now, in addition to feeling grateful for my job, I am focusing on the small things: some self-care, actually getting excited about exercising, and appreciating stepping outside in the spring air more than I ever have. Today, these things matter to me, and I'm trying to remind myself how beautiful they are.

While these are scary times with so much uncertainty, I'm reminded by my work and my colleagues at the centre of this pandemic that we can always learn and grow in small ways, even when things seem like they are falling apart around us. Like always, I'm a work in progress and I could be a complete wreck by next week, but right now I am trying to appreciate little things and little goals, and I can accept that I cannot control what happens next instead of staying in a spiral of worry. And if there was ever a time to live in the moment, that time is now.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Peter Ash is a Toronto-based healthcare administrator and writer. He writes personal essays and released his first book, The Story I Tell Myself: How Self-Narratives Define Our Identity, Hold Us Back and How We Can Change Them, in 2018. You can find him at peterwrites.ca and on Instagram at @rapprocher.

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