Point of View: 'I cried all the tears my body had' — an architect recounts 3 days as a seniors' home aide

Anouk Poulin had never stepped foot in a CHSLD before she started working at one a few weeks ago. This is what she experienced.

Anouk Poulin had no experience in health care but felt she needed to help at the province's CHSLDs

Images on a sign giving thanks to health care workers can be seen outside the CHSLD Éloria Lepage in Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

I, too, signed up to save lives by washing my hands, staying at home and watching TV. But I quickly tired of going around in circles, and upon hearing the horror stories coming from the front lines, I decided to step into the breach. With the help of a contact, I got a job working as a patient attendant's assistant in a CHSLD.

I arrive full of energy and optimism. I can't wait for my training to start. Health care is not my field, and I have never set foot in a CHSLD. In a makeshift locker room, an employee, or perhaps a volunteer, tells me to put on a gown, mask, visor and gloves. From there, I am taken directly to the Forgotten Wing, still untrained.

As soon as I walk out of the locker room, I am struck by the smell of urine, feces and disinfectant, even with the mask on. As we walk through the wing, some patients ask for our help, but we don't stop. The attendant I am assisting explains that we have 22 patients, and that we are alone to do the work. Two attendants did not return after testing positive for COVID-19 the day before.

And so begins this adventure, this tour of duty. How do I sum up three days on a battlefield in a few paragraphs? I decided on these anecdotes, told using nicknames for the residents. I find them easier to write — and to bear.

In the morning, I have four patients to feed. I'm first sent to Ms. Little's room. "Hello, madam!" I say cheerily. She is only semi-conscious. She whispers, "I'm thirsty." I take the glass of orange juice and place it in her hands, not knowing if she is able to hold the glass. She is so frail I fear she might break.

I carefully take her hands in mine and help her guide the glass slowly towards her mouth. She drinks quietly, sip by sip. I spend 30 minutes with her, vacillating between taking my time and needing to hurry her up. I have three more patients to feed. I do a quick calculation: 22 patients, one attendant and one assistant with no experience. How can that work?

As I serve breakfast to Mr. Hiha, he thanks me, then asks if I can get his teeth. The request makes me smile, until I see the dentures on a table; they are filthy and caked in dry food. I clean them as best I can, patiently chipping away at the thick, hardened crust. I finally place them in his hand. He puts them into his mouth and says, "Oh, thank you. They fit better: you fixed them!"

Anouk Poulin had never stepped foot in a CHSLD before she started working at one a few weeks ago. (Submitted by Anouk Poulin)

I brush Ms. Coquette's hair during the short respite between breakfast and lunch. Her hair is fine and soft, but quite dirty. She explains that it has been five weeks since she has taken a bath. Later, I confirm with an attendant, and it's true — only handwashing is allowed. Bathing someone who has lost their autonomy, and then decontaminating the bath, is simply unthinkable during a pandemic.

Since the dirty hair is malleable, I smooth it backwards, but she finds that it lacks volume. She's sneering, so I decide to give her a mohawk, by pulling her hair straight up. She picks up her mirror and we laugh like children. She will eat her meal sporting a style she approves of: creased and parted on one side.

Mr. Don Juan is a handsome man, with his round face and his laughing blue eyes. I took him to be about 80 years old, at the most. I later learn that he is 94. He flirts with me every chance he gets. "Ah, if I were younger, madam, you would be my type!" "But Mr. Don Juan," I reply, "with my mask and my visor on, you can't even see me!" "I would take my chances," he answers with a smile.

Later, Mr. Don Juan presses the call button. He needs help to go to the bathroom, and the attendant is nowhere to be found. I have a bad back, and he's too heavy for me to manage alone. The few videos I've watched on YouTube about patient care didn't fill me with confidence. But it's urgent, and he convinces me that he is almost capable of managing on his own.

It turns out, unfortunately, that Mr. Don Juan has overestimated his own ability. We did finally manage to get him in his wheelchair, but we didn't get to the bathroom in time. Sitting on the toilet bowl, his adult incontinence underwear overflowing, there are feces everywhere: on the floor, along his thighs, on the toilet, on his hands. He keeps repeating, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." "There's nothing to be sorry about," I tell him. "It will happen to us all, and we just have to help each other through it when it does."

That's all I could think to say to save his dignity, and my own. But I was thinking the exact opposite. NO WAY! That will NEVER happen to me. My brain is flooded with thoughts: I need to reassure him, protect him, I have to clean this up, where do I start, make sure not to vomit, I have to lift him again, but my back... Mr. Don Juan distracts me from this moment of panic by simply saying, "This is a shitty situation, huh!"

I will spare you the sordid details, but 45 minutes later, Mr. Don Juan is changed, washed and lying in a dry, freshly made bed. The floor is clean and he is fast asleep.

I befriend Ms. Gentille. She tells me it's been six weeks since she last spoke to her daughter. Indeed, she does not have a telephone in her room. I ask her if she knows her daughter's number, but she doesn't remember. With her permission, I rummage through the drawers and find a piece of paper with names and phone numbers scrawled by hand. I go get my cell phone, which involves a whole disinfection ordeal.

I dial the number and give the phone to Ms. Gentille. She has difficulty holding my too small, too thin iPhone in her trembling hands. I bear witness to their reunion. The mother and daughter cry, tell each other about the past month and manage to laugh, too. I then speak to the daughter, and we arrange to meet so she can give me a phone to bring to Ms. Gentille.

Poulin's drawing of one of the CHSLD's residents, waiting by the phone for a call. (Submitted by Anouk Poulin)

As I stand there, speaking with her daughter, I look down at Ms. Gentille's face. She smiles up at me. The deep furrows between her eyes have loosened. It is the love of family that counts most.

Ms. Waiting is seated in her wheelchair, leaning forward slightly, arm's length away from her phone. She had been sitting there since 9 a.m., waiting for her son to call. He calls every Sunday, but it was Wednesday. She had mixed up the days.

At the end of my shift, at 3 p.m., she is still there. She fell asleep, badly positioned in her chair. I know I should wake her up and transfer her to her bed, but since she is semi-paralyzed, it would be complicated for me to do. I'm hot; I'm hungry; I'm thirsty; my head feels like it's going to explode. My back is a wreck, and I am suffocating in my wet mask. My glasses steam up as I walk past her room without stopping. I hope the next attendant will take care of it. I am ashamed.

I cried all the tears my body had to cry that weekend. I have a lump in my stomach, and my heart is aching in my chest. I am torn between a sense of duty, my attachment to these people with whom I have already bonded, and my terrible longing to just wash my hands of it, stay at home and watch TV.

Ms. Coquette, Ms. Gentille, Mr. Hiha, Mr. Don Juan, Ms. Waiting ... I'll see you all soon.

Editor's note: Anouk Poulin learned this week that she has COVID-19. She plans to return to work at the CHSLD once she recovers.

The names in this article have been fictionalized to protect the patients' identities.


Anouk Poulin is an architect working as an assistant patient attendant at a CHSLD in a Montreal suburb. She is chronicling her experiences, in French, on her Facebook page:

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