'They die so fast': As Quebec scrambles to save seniors, nurse says she's never seen anything like COVID-19

Sylvie Morin, who has worked as a nurse in Quebec long-term care homes for 27 years, said she watched three patients die within 16 hours of showing their first symptoms.

Sylvie Morin recounts watching 3 patients die within 16 hours of showing first symptoms

Hundreds of residents in hundreds of long-term care institutions in Quebec have been made sick by COVID-19, and CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée in Laval is among those hit hardest. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Sylvie Morin has worked as a nurse in long-term care homes in Quebec for 27 years, but nothing prepared her for the ravages of this pandemic.

"The patients that die, they die so fast. I've never seen it in my profession," said Morin, the assistant head nurse at Laval's CHSLD de Sainte-Dorothée — one of the hardest-hit long-term care institutions in the province.

"Never have I seen people die so fast. It's crazy. It's hard. It's very stressful."

So far, 16 patients have died and more than 100 are infected in the institution, which normally houses 285 residents.

Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann is promising improvements at Sainte-Dorothée after nurses there said conditions are inhumane, for residents and staff alike.

A total of 50 staff also have COVID-19, and although Morin isn't among those who have fallen ill, she knows all too well how vicious the disease can be.

She said one of the CHSLD's residents started feeling ill in the morning, was tested in the afternoon and died overnight — days before her COVID-19 test came back positive.

"At least three have died in under 16 hours," Morin said. "Even with influenza, they don't die that fast."

From back pain to loneliness

On top of the death and illness that surrounds her, Morin says the long hours on her feet and intense hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of the virus weigh on her and her colleagues.

"You don't want to catch it. You don't want to give it to other people. We wash all day. We get dressed, undressed. We change masks, gloves," she said. Many have lower back pain from the hard work.

At 59, Sylvie Morin, a nurse at CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée, has 27 years' experience in her profession, but nothing prepared her for the speed at which COVID-19 has sickened and killed her patients. (CBC)

Then there's the isolation. She lives alone, and she hasn't seen her grandson for a month. Her colleagues living with families worry about passing COVID-19 to their spouses and children.

"They're scared to bring it home," Morin said.

She just wants life to go back to the way it was before the pandemic struck. So do her patients. She said so many are scared and aching to see their family — not knowing if they will ever see them again.

Staff members ailing

Morin said she had symptoms but tested negative at the end of March and was told by her employer to keep working, even though public-health directives recommended she self-isolate.

She is not the only one working despite concerns about her own health. A man that cleans the facility lost his sense of smell one morning — the first sign of infection for many — and yet he was told to keep working because he recently tested negative.

Morin said she and another nurse protested, and finally, the man was sent home later in the afternoon.

Then there's the shortage of personal protection equipment, such as face shields, as management was not providing enough, Morin said. She said nurses ended up buying their own.

Firefighters and police officers from Laval visited the CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée on Wednesday to cheer the staff with a show of support. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's workplace health and safety board, known as CNESST, has been reviewing the situation at the CHSLD after complaints were filed earlier this week.

There was a conference call on Wednesday morning, CNESST spokesperson Cincy L'Heureux said, and "many of the issues have already been resolved."

An inspector will stay involved in order to preserve the health and safety of workers, said L'Heureux.

300 death certificates on order

The CHSLD remains short-staffed, Morin said, as so many health-care workers have contracted the virus. Morin is 59, and she worries if she becomes infected, she could face a serious battle with the disease.

"I don't want to catch it. I'm really scared," she said. "I've never been scared like that before."

Elderly patients showing COVID-19 symptoms are not being transferred to hospital, she said, because there's little that can be done for them.

She said the solution has been to pre-order 300 death certificates and wait, shuffling patients between rooms as they get sick.

'We could have prevented it'

Among the residents at CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée is Morin's own 80-year-old mother, who so far has tested negative for COVID-19.

 If her mother does get sick, Morin does not want her transferred to hospital, where she would be intubated and spend her final days in isolation, on a ventilator.

The chronic-care institution is also home to younger patients with profound disabilities, some of them fragile and susceptible to infection. Some patients moved in in their 40s, and staff have worked with them for decades.

Yet the staff who care for them are posing the greatest danger, she said, as they move between floors and sometimes even between different long-term care residences in Laval.

"We've been having no visitors for awhile," Morin points out. "It's the staff who brings it."

Premier François Legault said CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée has the second-highest number of deaths, and there are about six long-term homes in the province with serious outbreaks. 

He and McCann vowed this week to send help, but Morin said more should have been done in the earliest days of this pandemic.

"It makes no sense," Morin said. "We could have prevented it, I think."

With files from Sarah Leavitt and Radio-Canada

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