Montreal·Exclusive

At a hard-hit nursing home in Laval, almost 'war-like' conditions prompt resignations

At least four front-line staff at a long-term care home in Laval, Que., that has been beset by a severe outbreak of COVID-19 have quit their jobs in recent days. Nurse Valérie Gilbert says she's "raising the white flag" after watching some of her longtime patients suffer.

'I admit defeat,' says one nurse who quit on Friday, burnt out from long hours and staff shortages

Around 85 per cent of the residents of CHSLD Fernand-Larocque in Laval, Que., have tested positive for the coronavirus. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

At least four front-line staff at a Laval, Que., long-term care home beset by a severe outbreak of COVID-19 have quit their jobs in recent days.

One of them is speaking out, saying she's "raising the white flag" after watching some of her longtime patients suffer.

Valérie Gilbert quit her job as a registered nurse at CHSLD Fernand-Larocque on Friday.

There are 70 cases of COVID-19 in the home, representing 85 per cent of the residents. To date, 20 people have died, according to the latest figures from the CISSS de Laval, the regional health authority that oversees the home.

Gilbert had been working in the home since March 2018.

"I'm raising the white flag, I admit defeat," she wrote on Facebook. "I am leaving this boat which is sinking faster than the Titanic.

"You won't see me cry all the tears in my body because I have already shed them for my patients who died. The same patients I've known for two years, whom I have cared for and, until now, whom I have ensured a quality of life."

Canadian Armed Forces personnel are helping in Quebec's long-term care homes at the request of the provincial government. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The CISSS de Laval confirmed Sunday night that it received a notice Friday from a health-care union stating that four employees were quitting their jobs.

A spokesperson said the majority of the employees who terminated their employment were working as patient attendants, commonly referred to by the French-language acronym, PABs.

Front-line workers struggle to cope

In an interview, Gilbert described conditions inside the CHSLD as almost "war-like." She said there's a shortage of staff and a shortage of medical equipment. The result, she said, is that staff are not able to give adequate care.

"It was hard to see the people I took care of for so long basically dying and suffering," she said.

In a statement, the regional health authority that oversees the home, the CISSS de Laval, did not deny the conditions were poor, saying it understands there are challenges in long-term care homes.

"The impact on employees should not be minimized," wrote spokesman Pierre-Yves Séguin, adding that workers have access to an employee assistance program and are encouraged to use it. 

'I think it was approaching PTSD, seriously,' says Valérie Gilbert of her experiences at the nursing home. 'I don’t have other words to describe it.' (CBC)

Seguin said more than 150 people have been hired over the last two weeks and clinical staff from other departments are being redeployed to long-term care homes. 

As well, two infection prevention and control advisers are working at the home, making sure staff are wearing the proper protective equipment.

Gilbert said she would go into work worried that she wouldn't be able to leave because if a nurse called in sick, she could be forced to stay. She wondered whether she'd be able to go look after her children after work.

On Friday, Gilbert decided she could no longer continue to work after breaking down in tears.

"There are people who are better at handling seeing human suffering. For me, it really touches me deeply … I think it was approaching PTSD, seriously," she said. 

"I don't have other words to describe it."

Other nurses described similar conditions in Quebec long-term care homes that have been hard-hit by COVID-19.

Last week, Premier François Legault said there was a shortage of 9,500 workers from Quebec's health-care network, and that the labour shortage is especially felt in the province's long-term care homes.

Speaking out for change

Since Gilbert posted on Facebook, she said she's received a lot of support from colleagues who are working in similar conditions. But she said her colleagues are afraid to speak out publicly.

She said she feels like she's abandoning them by leaving her job, but she has hit her breaking point.

She's hoping decision-makers read her words and react.

"Maybe they would be able to hear us and to try to figure out how to help us," she said. "They need to understand. We're not lazy. We each have our limits."

Lobbying for years

The Quebec federation of nurses (FIQ) said that it has been lobbying the government for improvements inside long-term care homes (known by their French-language initials, CHSLDs) for years.

"What's happening in the CHSLDs today has been long known," said Nancy Bédard, president of the FIQ, in a news release.

"When a nurse has to cover several CHSLDs, look after more than 50 patients or already has to choose what care she will be able to give, how can we believe that such institutions can handle a pandemic?"

WATCH | A long-term care home resident worries about the lack of staff:

Quebec long-term care resident Jonathan Marchand, who has muscular dystrophy, says he wants the right to be cared for outside of an institution. 5:08

The union blames the government for not acting in a timely manner. It's calling on the province to hire more staff as soon as possible.

The Legault government has made efforts to do so in recent weeks. It has issued directives permitting non-essential staff from other parts of the health care sector to be moved into long-term care homes.

Legault has also enlisted the help of the Canadian Forces, and requested that any able-bodied Quebecer volunteer to work.

It also said some backup staff have been sent to the long-term care homes and that it has hired more than 150 people in recent weeks.

Corrections

  • An earlier version misstated Valérie Gilbert's profession, saying she is an auxiliary nurse, or LPN. In fact, Gilbert is a registered nurse.
    Apr 27, 2020 6:26 PM ET

About the Author

Kate McKenna is a reporter with CBC Montreal. Email her at kate.mckenna@cbc.ca.

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