'We just can't neglect anyone': Quebec City's volunteer 'street nurse' makes daily visits to shut-ins

Since 1986, Gilles Kègle and his team of volunteers have checked in on people living in isolation in downtown Quebec City, most of them impoverished, elderly and in poor health. Right now, he says, their needs are greater than ever.

At 77, Gilles Kègle takes every precaution, but he says needs of most vulnerable are even greater now

Gilles Kègle has lost around half his volunteers who are staying home because of the COVID-19 crisis. (Nahila Bendali/Radio-Canada)

Day in and day out, for the past nine years, Gilles Kègle has visited Alain, who has been confined to his home ever since he had open heart surgery nearly a decade ago.

People like Alain, whose last name CBC is not using in order to protect his privacy, already know what it is like to live in isolation, dependent on others for every basic need.

Since 1986, Kègle, who is known as Quebec City's infirmier de la rue, or "street nurse," has checked in on countless shut-ins like Alain in his downtown neighbourhood — most of them impoverished, elderly and in poor health.

Sometimes he drops by just to keep them company. The goal is to provide a lifeline to the outside world.

"Just last week we found three people lying on the floor, who couldn't get back up. Thankfully, we stop by often," Kègle said in a phone interview.

The restrictions the government has put in place to try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus mean Kègle's team of volunteers has shrunk from 30 to 10. The needs, on the other hand, have escalated.

"I have one patient who is 88 years old, who has Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Usually we bring him outside to take walks, and now we can't — so he's lonely," said Kègle."That's why we have to increase our visits."

'Neglect no one'

The government's directive asking people over 70 to stay home makes exceptions for those who deliver essential services and who are in good health.

Kègle, who is a spry 77, is taking as many precautions as possible — such as wearing gloves and masks before entering apartments and washing his hands 50 times a day.

But he is also trying to co-ordinate his team so that younger volunteers go out as much as possible. This week, he's welcomed a few new recruits — nursing and medical students, as well as future police officers.

Kègle organized two mass funerals every year to honour the people under his care, or who die in hospital, but who are estranged from their families. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

Kègle said even with fewer resources, it was out of the question to cut back visits, even temporarily.

"Our clientele is poor. They have respiratory problems, cardiac problems; others use walkers —  so we just can't neglect anyone."

Mass funeral cancelled

Kègle has hardly taken a day off since he began providing home care 34 years ago. He is often the one who finds clients in their apartment after they have died.

He makes sure those in his care get a decent burial. 

The Gilles Kègle Foundation covers the costs of funeral and interment.Twice a year, a funeral mass is conducted at Saint-Roch church, in Quebec City's Lower Town, to pay tribute to all those clients who have died in the previous six months.

But with the COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, Kègle expects the funeral mass that was to be held in May for the 21 clients who have quietly died since October will be cancelled. 

"It's sad because we will have to bury them without having a religious ceremony," Kègle said. "We loved these people — and normally we accompany them, even in death."

Before hanging up the phone, he made one simple request, for those who are looking for ways to help him and his team in their work.

"I'm saying this from the bottom of my heart — to our elderly people — please help us help you — stay home."

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