Small team, 'big impact': N.L. medical volunteers depart for Ontario
Nine-person team set to begin work in Toronto Wednesday
In a short farewell at a St. John's airport hangar Tuesday morning, a contingent of Newfoundland and Labrador health-care workers spoke of what's ahead as they fly to Toronto in an effort to alleviate a few of their counterparts dealing with a crushing surge of COVID-19 cases.
"They're struggling, and they have been for over a year," said Dr. Allison Furey, a member of a nine-person team who will be deployed in downtown Toronto's University Health Network starting on Wednesday.
Furey has spent the last 11 years volunteering on medical relief trips to places such as Haiti, along with her husband, Premier Andrew Furey, who — long before turning to politics — founded the international medical relief organization Team Broken Earth.
"When an opportunity comes to help your own country, I'll raise my hand for that," she told reporters.
The Ontario aid team is comprised of three doctors, five nurses and a nurse practitioner. Eight of them boarded a Hercules C-130 military aircraft in St. John's, with the ninth member picked up en route in Deer Lake.
All are volunteers. Critical care nurse practitioner Jennifer Hinks said she could not say no when the magnitude of the need that Ontario faced became clear.
After working the front lines of two waves of the pandemic in Newfoundland and Labrador, Hinks said she is ready to face the third.
WATCH | Dr. Allison Furey and Jennifer Hinks talk about their medical mission to work in Toronto hospitals:
"We've been very fortunate in our province to regain our strength and our physical and mental well-being in between waves, and unfortunately the health-care providers across the country, such as those in Ontario, just haven't had that time," she said.
The volunteers came together after Ontario Premier Doug Ford asked for help to deal with a soaring caseload of severely ill patients, as well as caseloads fuelled by highly contagious virus variants.
After arriving in Toronto, members of the team spoke to local reporters, who asked — among other things — why people from Newfoundland and Labrador are known for their generosity.
"I think that people in Newfoundland have big hearts," Allison Furey said.
"They have a lot of energy, and it's just the way that Newfounlanders are. They are giving to their communities, both locally and in their own country and abroad."
Ready to work
Tuesday's team is meant to be a trial run for additional support.
Various members will stay anywhere from 10 days to three weeks, with one person slated to remain until the end of May. They have been matched with their counterparts already, Andrew Furey said Tuesday, so that they can begin "working almost immediately" in critical care units.
"It's a small team, but small teams can have big impacts," he said.
"This is an example of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians stepping up to answer the call, and I think we should all be collectively as a province proud of these individuals and their families for making this sacrifice to help the Canadian collective effort," he said.
They're set to help the Toronto hospitals manage ICU cases and staffing pressures, according to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott.
Andrew Furey, an orthopedic surgeon, said he helped his wife pack the night before, and added that he felt he was missing out on the relief effort.
"There is a passion there that you can't get rid of, just because you take on a new role. So there is a big part of me that wishes I was going," he said.
According to Andrew Furey, between 20 to 40 Newfoundland and Labrador workers volunteered to go.
The team is funded by the federal government. All members have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
On Monday, Ontario reported 3,510 new cases of COVID-19, while Newfoundland and Labrador had four.
With files from Peter Cowan and Patrick Butler