Point of View: Dear Premier Legault, spend a day on the front lines

Ryan Hicks, a law student now working at a CHSLD, says he believes seeing what is happening at the province's long-term care homes first-hand would change the way François Legault views this crisis and elder care forever.

Seeing what is happening first-hand 'will change the way you view this crisis,' says Ryan Hicks

Ryan Hicks has been working at a CHSLD for the last five weeks, and has seen how the pandemic is playing out in Quebec from the front lines. (Submitted by Ryan Hicks)

Dear Premier François Legault,

I am inviting you to leave the safe confines of your office and join me on the front lines of what even you have described as a "national emergency." Come spend a day with me inside a long-term care home, known in French as a CHSLD.

As a journalist who covered Quebec politics before heading to law school, I learned about the challenges facing this province's elder care system long before the pandemic. And I know you, like all politicians, were aware, too.

I volunteered to work because you asked people to step up. For the past five weeks, myself and many others who answered your call have been working as assistant patient attendants, a paid position, at one of the Montreal CHLSDs hit hard by COVID-19.

I have been stunned, shocked and moved. I am asking you to come see first-hand what is happening. It will change the way you view this crisis and elder care forever. I know, because that is what happened to me.

You would, of course, wear the full ensemble of personal protective equipment: medical mask, plastic visor, gloves and gown, as we do every day to protect ourselves and our residents. On a regular day, these layers can suffocate. Imagine how we have felt during this week's heat wave, without air conditioning. Yes, there may be air conditioners in common areas, but on the floor where I worked earlier this week, it wasn't on.

If you joined us, you would see that our seniors are currently receiving the bare minimum level of care. Where I work, assistant patient attendants, like me, patient attendants, and soldiers are constantly feeding, changing diapers and washing. Nurses provide medication. Doctors are on hand during the day, often moving between floors.

But nothing else is happening beyond moving residents from their bed to their wheelchair — and sometimes, even that does not happen.

You could watch how a Canadian Forces soldier, who has traded in a uniform for scrubs, gently feeds a elderly woman who needs total help, carefully and patiently placing each spoonful of food in her mouth.

You could help wash a resident's hair — hair that has not been washed in weeks.

You would hear how we try to console and reassure a distraught resident who has just received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. You would see the thick, bright red tape I have to unroll to mark a huge X beside her door to indicate that her room is now a hot zone, while the resident sobs in the background.

You would learn how to prepare the body of a deceased resident with a sheet of white plastic for travel to the morgue. And then you would pack that resident's personal belongings into garbage bags, label them with a Post-It note and pile them in a maintenance closet.

Watch Ryan Hicks talk about being on the front lines of long-term care: 

From the front lines of the long-term care home crisis

3 years ago
Duration 3:00
After five weeks of seeing first-hand what is happening in long-term care homes, Ryan Hicks is alarmed... but also inspired.

You would try to explain to residents with varying degrees of dementia when this will all be over, and why their loved ones can't visit them. After 11 weeks of this crisis, repeating "it's going to be all right" (ça va bien aller in French) starts to lose its punch.

You would see how a team of people tries to figure out where to place red, yellow and green tape on the floor of a hallway to indicate hot, caution and safe zones to prevent further infection.

We called that floor "the jungle," a reference to the steps and care we have to take when travelling between positive and negative areas so as to not contaminate residents who are negative. Despite our best efforts, every resident on that floor was infected by the end of the week.

You would see how some of the problems that started this crisis are creeping back. For example, last week on one of my floors, there was only one patient attendant available for 33 residents. Luckily, four of assistant patient attendants were on hand to help.

Above all, you would see people from all walks of life, soldiers, and staff giving their all to make a difference in this humanitarian crisis.

I never thought I would see, in Canada, the kind of desperation, fear and anxiety that I have seen in the eyes of our elders. And it is only by spending time on the front lines that you will be able to feel the true weight of this ongoing tragedy.

Ryan Hicks


  • This story has been updated to clarify that while Ryan Hicks volunteered to work, he is employed as an assistant patient attendant, which is a paid position.
    May 28, 2020 11:29 AM ET


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.

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