Nfld. & Labrador·First Person

I wanted to face Armageddon in N.L. but COVID-19 forced a change in plans

Plenty of things are revealed in a pandemic, writes physician and contributor Monica Kidd. Character is one of them.

Plenty of things are revealed in a pandemic. Character is one of them

Contributor Monica Kidd continues to work as a physician through the COVID-19 pandemic in Calgary. (Submitted by Monica Kidd)

Before becoming a family doctor, Monica Kidd worked as a journalist with CBC Radio in St. John's. In this essay, she writes about how COVID-19 has changed her life and work. 

The day the news of the COVID-19 pandemic really settled in for me was March 15, four days after the World Health Organization's declaration.

My family and two others were skiing into a backcountry hut near Lake O'Hara, B.C., to spend a few days off-grid. Half-way there, a group out skiing stopped us.

"Hey, just a heads-up. Two people were airlifted out this morning with respiratory symptoms. It might be COVID."

Here? In the backcountry? The three physicians in our group looked at each other. If one of us became symptomatic, that person wouldn't be able to work for two weeks. If all three of us did, that was six weeks of doctor hours lost. We turned back.

Beforehand, in Alberta, there had already been talk of the new coronavirus at work, of course. Would we ask symptomatic patients to avoid coming to clinic? Would we limit traffic through the hospital? Who should wear masks and when? And there were the implications at home. Would schools be cancelled, as they already had already been in Ontario? How would we balance home-schooling with carrying on at work?

There wasn't much more a person could do than wait and see.

Grinding to a halt

When we reached the parking lot and I got cell service again, my phone exploded with texts and voicemail: the Calgary Board of Education had cancelled school for the rest of the year, and all kids would advance to the next grade in September. The whole year? Was there no Plan B?

Back in the city, things quickly came to a halt: meetings, recreational facilities, restaurants, many stores — all locked up.

Signs of playground closures like this one can be found right across the country. (Submitted by Monica Kidd)

My hours in clinic and in the hospital began to feel dreamlike: empty waiting rooms as we asked patients to wait in their cars to maintain physical distance, chairs and tables removed from the hospital cafeteria for the same reason, lining up to have my temperature taken before reporting for work. An overload of information, sometimes contradictory, about which protective equipment to wear in which setting. Concerns about whether we'd have the right gear at the right time.

A few days before the pandemic struck, Alberta doctors had been told to expect deep cuts to services and income; friends of mine who run their own clinics had become worried overnight about their ability to keep staff. Just as morale was at the lowest point I can remember in my career, the floodgates of uncertainty opened.

Would we be asked to work outside our usual scope of practice? In a different community? Would we bring the virus home to our kids, stuck to our pagers and lunch bags? 

Like so many others in my profession, and in the wider world, I am grieving for the future. I am trying to be steady, while letting myself feel how I feel.

We've seen job losses, redeployments, closure of some units of city hospitals to make way for the anticipated COVID bomb, rapid escalation of bed capacity.

My husband and I hatched a quick plan to bring the kids to Nanny and Poppy. They'd be safe at the cabin, far away from the storm that seemed to be brewing. If there was no school to go to, and their parents were going to be busy at work, then it was far better for them to be with their grandparents, outdoors, poking at fires and playing board games with a freezer full of fish and raisin bread.

If I had to face Armageddon, Newfoundland is where I'd want to be. Armageddon protocols are in place in Newfoundland every day of the week. But as the days ticked along and even domestic flight schedules were cut back, we had a calculation to make: if one of the kids got sick, or Nanny or Poppy, and there was no way to get to them quickly?

Well. My heart broke and I cancelled the tickets. Later that day Dwight Ball announced 14 days of self-isolation for anyone arriving on the island. We settled in for what would come. Two weeks into this thing, nerves are getting frayed, and we're told it's only building up steam.

Kidd's three children are enjoying the great outdoors while practising physical distancing. (Submitted by Monica Kidd)

Character is revealed under pressure

On the days I'm home with the kids, I do my best as a reluctant home-schooler, coming up with lessons better suited to the undergraduate biology labs I used to teach. Then I'll sift through a dozen new work emails, be reminded of all the worst-case scenarios, and slip into hair-trigger testiness. I say these things not because I am special, but because so many of us are living the same life at the moment.

Anxiety is palpable at work. Doctors are trained to know the answer, to be in charge, and we don't like being caught flat-footed. Like any news junkie, I await each day's new orders from public health officials, and I adjust. Fear is contagious, so I react to the anxiety of others, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with less than that.

Like so many others in my profession, and in the wider world, I am grieving for the future. I am trying to be steady, while letting myself feel how I feel.

Socially, we are a many-headed beast. But biologically, ecologically, we are all in this together.

The night I cancelled our tickets to St. John's, one of my kids cried herself to sleep. She wanted to know when life would be normal again. I had to tell her I didn't know. But in that helpless moment, I had to give her, give myself, something. A thought came to me. I told my daughter that people — and societies — are a bit like water balloons. When you squeeze them, you never quite know which way they'll go.

Character is revealed under pressure. I keep being reminded of this.

When I went to work yesterday, passing the staff screening table where my temperature was taken, I carried with me a sense of foreboding. When I arrived at my labour and delivery unit, cleaners, porters, clerks, dietary staff, lab techs and nurses all smiled, doing their best to put their own worries aside and keep things as welcoming as possible for patients experiencing some of the biggest moments of their lives.

That's classy.

This black-capped chickadee landed in the hand of Kidd's daughter, to nibble on some seeds. (Submitted by Monica Kidd)

I am not ready to go looking for silver linings, not yet. Too many people are hurting too badly, and there are too many unanswerable questions. But I see some things that interest me. Things that make me wonder if the world might be able to emerge a wee bit better on the other side of this, whenever that might be.

Useful skills are prized

No. 1. Yeast was sold out of the three grocery stores I tried. I'm bold enough to believe that means people may be getting in touch with some older skills. I remember being at a barbecue a few years back and hearing someone say, "I don't really know how to do anything."

This was a savvy woman speaking, highly trained, and I'm paraphrasing, but it got me thinking. What do we gen-Xers know how to do? What skills would I want to have for a nuclear winter? (Or global pandemic?) People are sewing up face masks like nobody's business and realizing there's value in knowing how to construct a useful thing with materials at hand.

That's something that matters to me.

Many of us were gobsmacked to learn, when the U.S. announced its intentions to stop export of N95 masks to Canada, our country was not self-sufficient in basic medical supplies. Might we find a way to cultivate global awareness while revivifying local production?

We've found permanent alternatives

No. 2. The virtual world has erupted. In my opinion, nothing takes the place of looking someone in the eyes and breathing a bit of the same air, or finding yourself opening to somewhere, something, someone, new. But we have to burn less carbon, and life over the last few weeks has shown us practical, immediate ways to do that.

I had a two-hour work meeting last night using video conferencing. Ordinarily I would have had to make sure my husband was home, or hire a babysitter and then drive an hour round-trip to attend a meeting like this.

The 10 or so of us watched each other stare slack-jawed at the thumbnail images of our colleagues drinking wine or rocking their babies. Boring, yes, and growing old fast. But a really solid alternative to getting in the car or on a plane to attend a meeting.

It's admittedly tone-deaf to even mention it at this point, but this global shutdown — while causing worldwide hardship and panic and scarcity — is showing us that it is possible to live differently. The difference between this time, and another time that might result from a kind of Malthusian catastrophe, is that this one, higher powers willing, is temporary.

As I write this, the price of Western Canadian Select bitumen-blend crude is around five bucks a barrel. For the economies of Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador, both dependent on the price of oil, this means fewer jobs, bigger classrooms, more potholes. It means bankruptcies and empty storefronts and families in pain. It means later retirements. It means kids moving away and not coming back.

There was plenty of space for Kidd's family to take in a hike near Calgary. (Submitted by Monica Kidd)

Regardless of your position on climate change and fossil fuels, few expect us to be able to divest quickly from oil. But when pumping and moving oil to market puts companies in the red, that possibility begins to seem less remote. Maybe on the other side of this a smaller carbon footprint will become a sign of strength.

Not all of us can stay home

No. 3. Common refrains since March 11 have been "stay safe," "stay home" and "we're all in this together." Staying home is not an option for many. People working in health care can't stay home. Neither can grocery store clerks or delivery people or firefighters or transit drivers, or people experiencing homelessness. Home is a toxic exposure to people experiencing domestic violence.

When I checked to see when I might be able to order groceries for pickup, I was looking at 11 days away.

Staying home is purely aspirational for many. Socially, we are a many-headed beast. But biologically, ecologically, we are all in this together.

Living in dense populations as we humans do, in close proximity to each other and to other animals, means the WHO's so-called One Health approach will increasingly be the best way to understand and manage human health on a global scale.

We do not act, do not live, in isolation. New viruses will mutate and defect, and we're seeing now what they can do to naive immune systems. 

All touched by one thing

I've long been fascinated by those diagrams, the ones stitched with flight paths of all the planes in the air in a single day. It gives me an odd sense of peace to know I could get on a plane and be nearly anywhere in the world by tomorrow.

It made the world feel knowable, touchable. It made me feel connected to strangers.

Today, hunkered down in our houses, or bracing behind all manner of protective equipment — we are living the proof of this connection.

These last weeks have brought me a profound sense of loss. But sometimes after loss comes a moment of sweetness when a person feels more acutely what remains.

Maybe on the other side of this will be that moment, when we know we can all be touched by one thing. That we can be changed by one thing.

That we can be changed.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Monica Kidd is a writer and physician.