Why this nurse came back to Willowgrove during Hamilton's largest COVID-19 outbreak

A cat named Cricket brought Sarah McNally back to Chartwell Willowgrove, but as she watched through the windows and saw her former coworkers covered in PPE, working to combat an outbreak, she knew she couldn't leave.

17 Willowgrove residents have died, the most associated with any COVID-19 outbreak

Sarah McNally is registered practical nurse at Chartwell Willowgrove Long Term Care Residence. She quit her job at the hospital in Welland to return to the home when the COVID-19 outbreak there began. (Submitted by Sarah McNally)

It was a cat named Cricket that brought Sarah McNally back to Chartwell Willowgrove, but as she watched through the windows and saw her former coworkers covered in PPE, working to combat an outbreak, she knew she couldn't leave.

It was late October and the COVID-19 outbreak at the Ancaster long-term care home had just begun.

Over the weeks that followed, it grew, infecting 87 people — 57 residents, 28 staff members and two visitors.

It's the largest outbreak Hamilton has seen so far during the pandemic.

Seventeen people who lived at the home and had the virus have died, the most associated with any outbreak.

"It's been really, really tough. There have been a lot of tears," said McNally, speaking from the home by phone during her break on Wednesday.

"It's scary because as a nurse you're trying to save lives, but it feels like you can't do that with this virus."

McNally is a registered practical nurse (RPN). Willowgrove was her first job after she graduated roughly three years ago.

When the pandemic first began in Canada and nurses were no longer able to work at multiple sites, she moved to the hospital in Welland to be closer to home.

But before she left Willowgrove, she promised that if an outbreak began she'd come back to take Cricket, the jet-black cat that lives on the second floor, to live with her.

"She's a senior kitty. An older girl," said McNally, recalling how Cricket used to sit with her as she filled out her charts.

Cricket typically lives on the second floor at Willowgrove, but has been staying with McNally during the outbreak. (Submitted by Sarah McNally)

When the first cases started appearing at the home, McNally said she asked the hospital to grant her a leave of absence so she could lend a hand. That request was denied.

Unwilling to let her former colleagues down, she drove down to Willowgrove to collect Cricket.

That's when McNally realized she couldn't leave again.

"I was sitting in the parking lot here I saw all my coworkers in the window with all their PPE on. I said 'OK, I have to come back. I have to help,'" she explained.

McNally resigned from the hospital and headed back to Willowgrove and a spreading outbreak.

Fighting exhaustion

Wearing masks and face shields all day leaves marks. Constant hand washing and sanitizing leaves hands peeling.

"It's exhausting. Our skin on our faces is feeling it for sure," she said.

"It's definitely taking its toll. Donning and doffing all the PPE is a lot more work than you'd imagine."

The process of safely pulling protective gear on and off again can take as long as seven minutes, McNally said.

Chartwell Willowgrove is the site of Hamilton's largest COVID-19 outbreak. Eighty-seven people linked to the home have been infected. Seventeen residents have died. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

She goes through the routine multiple times a day as she moves between rooms. The worry that something could go wrong is always in the back of her mind.

"There's definitely that big fear of bringing it to a negative resident or staff member," she said. "But it kind of motivates us to be extra cautious."

Staff at the home are currently being tested every five days, said McNally, but even that comes with some stress.

"Everybody feels that little bit of fear when they're tested because you just don't know. We're doing everything possible, but it's just a virus that is so unpredictable."

Ordered to improve infection control

As the outbreak continued to grow, public health ordered Willowgrove to improve COVID-19 protections on Nov. 17.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, said "small breaks" around PPE use and screening had allowed the virus to spread.

"I want to emphasize these were not major concerns that were observed," said Richardson at the time. "But they were happening from time to time and unfortunately we continued to see transmission within Chartwell."

On Tuesday, a Chartwell spokesperson said seven resident and four staff cases at Willowgrove are still active. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The company responded, saying the changes ordered by health officials "aligns with our own action plans" for enhanced screening and heightened monitoring of residents for COVID-19 symptoms, as well as a stable PPE supply and training.

On Tuesday, a Chartwell spokesperson said 33 resident and 23 staff cases are considered resolved, while seven resident and four staff cases are active.

"We will continue doing everything possible to protect and support our residents, working collaboratively with our health care and government partners," Sharon Ranalli said in an email statement.

'We just have to keep going'

McNally said visits from public health can be helpful because they sometimes see things staff can't.

Still, she says staff at the home are working hard to keep residents, and each other, safe.

"It's sad to see the numbers. From being in it and being here, I know that in terms of infection control, we are doing everything possible," she said.

"All of us trying to grasp how it continues to spread despite everything we're doing. It's been a little bit disheartening."

What's kept her and her coworkers motivated is a special connection and the kind of teamwork that sees everyone from cooks and housekeepers to personal support workers and management working together to care for residents.

"A lot of us are just mentally, physically exhausted, but we just keep going," she said.

"It's the residents, my staff. I don't know how to explain it. I just want everybody to be safe. We just have to keep going."