Nurse who held it together while CHSLD Herron unravelled now begs to be allowed back

Auxiliary nurse Kristy-Lyn Kemp reached her breaking point last month after working non-stop and watching residents die. She came back to work as a companion, but the regional health authority now says she's not welcome.

Burnt out, Kristy-Lyn Kemp has been back working as a companion, but CIUSSS says she's no longer welcome

'I was told what I was doing was not valuable,' says Kristy-Lyn Kemp, who has been working as a companion since she has been unable to continue working as an auxiliary nurse. She says there's more to caring for people than giving them pills and checking vital signs. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

An auxiliary nurse said she's devastated the West Island regional health authority is barring her from visiting the remaining residents at CHSLD Résidence Herron.

The private long-term care home in Dorval is now under government trusteeship — taken over last month after its owners asked for help in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak and dire staff shortages. At least 33 residents have since died of complications of the coronavirus.

CHSLD Herron is now the subject of at least three separate inquiries, including a criminal investigation by Montreal police, as well as a coroner's inquest.

"All I know is that with all the finger-pointing, the residents have been forgotten," said Kristy-Lyn Kemp, who is convinced her visits offered both comfort and hope.

Kemp had worked at the Herron as an auxiliary nurse since December 2018, and she says she loved the residents like family.

But at the end of March, the care home started to unravel when no one showed up to replace her on one of her weekend shifts.

"I was on the second floor for 16 hours. I was the only nurse. I had no backup. I had no RN. I had all three doctors on speed dial, I was talking to the pharmacy as well. I was trying to run the floor," said Kemp.

The following week was a blur. She worked almost non-stop.

But on April 6, Kemp said she reached her breaking point.

"We had lost a few people that day and it was a very, very difficult day," she said. 

It was also unclear who was in charge.

"I felt I needed to step down in the capacity of a nurse because I was no longer mentally able to perform my duties," said Kemp, who has still not fully recovered and is now receiving therapy.

Unable to keep up with her nursing, she offered to keep going into the long-term care home to work as a companion. 

She said Herron's management not only approved her suggestion but encouraged it, paying her to be there.

Kemp believes as a familiar face, her visits, with a cup of soup or a few warm words, have made a difference to the residents sequestered in their rooms.

"I tried to give them hope, and for those that were passing away, I held their hand and I sat with them," she said. "Nobody needs to die alone."

Kemp was their 'eyes and ears'

For weeks, Franco Leone and Patrizia Di Biase could only wave at Biase's mother through the window at CHSLD Herron. They say Kristy-Lyn Kemp has given families much-needed peace of mind, letting them know how their loved ones are doing. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

Knowing Kemp was at her mother's bedside came as a huge relief for Patrizia Di Biase and her husband, Franco Leone.

Since the lockdown, getting updates on her mother, a resident at the Herron, was difficult.

Di Biase's mother has dementia and although they spoke to her by phone, they couldn't understand why she sounded so weak.

But Kemp noticed the 97-year-old was not eating or drinking, and she flagged that to the family.

Di Biase said her mother had lost 20 pounds and was severely dehydrated. Last Thursday, she was sent to the Lakeshore Hospital for fluids and closer monitoring.

Antonietta Pollice, 97, who lives on the second floor of CHSLD Herron, was sent to the Lakeshore Hospital last week, suffering from kidney failure. (Submitted by Patrizia Di Biase)

The couple credits Kemp for catching it.

"It was as if we were there, you know. For us, it was the best thing to have somebody as kindhearted as Kristy to be our eyes and ears," she said.

With families barred from visiting since mid-March, many are desperate for the smallest tidbit of information.

Hoping to offer reassurance, Kemp said, she sent updates to other families, too, including photos and small videos.

Harriet Shugar said one of those videos gave her family clues about why her 94-year-old mother-in-law seemed so confused and irritable.

They suspected it was a urinary tract infection and discussed it with the doctors. The elderly woman is now on antibiotics.

Kemp's video revealed "something we were able to do something about," said Shugar. "She was the only set of eyes we had."

No longer welcome

On April 24, Kemp said, she arrived at CHSLD Herron and was told she was late for her shift — as an auxiliary nurse.

Kemp said she was baffled, as she hadn't agreed to work as a nurse and is in no shape to do so.

"I am not OK," said Kemp. "This has severely messed with my head."

Kemp said she was told the care home was short-staffed, but she suspects the regional health authority was simply uncomfortable with the contact she has had with residents' families.

"I was told what I was doing was not valuable," she said. "When I walk into the room and they cry with joy because they have someone to talk to, I don't believe that for a second that it wasn't valuable."

She knows the staff are working hard to take care of the residents, but she said there's more to caring for people than giving them pills and checking their vital signs.

Flowers were left on the lawn of CHSLD Herron on April 13, the day after the Quebec government confirmed that 31 people had died at the residence in the first weeks of the outbreak. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

She believes her absence will hurt the residents. They haven't seen their families for weeks, and many have lost close friends.

"All they have to do is look outside their door and chances are pretty good that the door across from them in the hall is an empty room with the resident's name plate removed," said Kemp.

"I'm genuinely worried without these regular visits, they're going to decline mentally."

Call for help

The CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, which oversees CHSLD Herron, has refused to comment on Kemp's situation.

It would also not answer questions about how the trusteeship works and who the institution's employees now answer to.

For Kemp's part, she's sent letters to both the premier and the prime minister, pleading for their help so she can return to the Herron as a companion.

The families of the residents want her back, too.

Amid all the chaos, they were grateful someone was tending to the emotional needs of their loved ones.

"These seniors — who went to hell and back — they need this," said Di Biase.

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