Surviving COVID: a long-term care worker on her recovery and return to work
Getting vaccinated capped off an emotional and anxious year for Nova Scotia long-term care worker Staci Smith
Staci Smith remembers how this time last year people in her workplace were waiting for a storm. It blew in suddenly one Sunday afternoon.
On March 15, the doors at the Magnolia long-term care facility in Enfield, N.S., were shut to all visitors. There had been a feeling it would come to this, that COVID-19 was inching its way into the province. But, Smith said, they didn't realize how quickly.
"It was terrifying, honestly," she said. "We went from having family members, musicians, churches coming in one day, and then nobody but staff the next."
Long-term care homes in Canada were hit particularly hard by COVID-19, and Nova Scotia was no exception. The vast majority of people who died in the province due to the virus lived in Northwood long-term care in Halifax, and a significant number of those who became sick were either residents or staff in long-term care homes.
Smith is a recreation therapist at Magnolia, and one of the first 100 people in the province to be diagnosed with COVID-19. The Magnolia had an outbreak that started in late March and lasted until May 15. No one died.
Smith noticed that she had a slight cough during a training session at work in the third week of March, and decided it would be best to stay home for a few days to avoid spreading what she thought was a cold virus.
She had some head pressure with congestion and sinus issues, a severe sore throat and a low-grade fever. She also lost her sense of smell and taste.
She wondered if it was COVID, but a test wasn't easy to get at the time. Finally, it was confirmed.
"I had so much racing through my head. Did I take it into work with me? Did I get it at work? Have I exposed any friends or family members?" she said in a recent interview.
Smith still isn't sure how she was exposed. There was some community spread in Enfield at the time. She quarantined for roughly a month until she tested negative, and even after that the recovery process took time.
"It's been quite the year," she said. She still has shortness of breath going up a flight of stairs and had to work back up to exercises she previously liked such as running or walking.
Her smell and taste are still affected, as citrus fruits like lemon and grapefruit taste unpleasant, and soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi taste metallic.
"One thing that I loved, absolutely loved prior to having COVID was peanut butter, and to this day the taste has changed so much that it leaves a horrible taste in my mouth," she said.
However, it was the mental stress that was hardest.
"I think my biggest fear was that I was going to be blamed for bringing the virus into the nursing home," she said. "That was really scary for me. That's the last thing I ever would have wanted to do. I know how vulnerable our residents are, so that alone was huge for me."
An anxious return
Smith came back to work in late April to a very different environment than she left. Everyone was in masks, and there was no more group programming. Some co-workers were missing because they were isolating, which meant extra work for those who remained.
Dealing with COVID for a month was hard on Smith's mental health, and she had some anxiety about returning to the workplace.
"That was really hard to adjust to, especially just coming back from having the illness and still recovering," she said.
As the anniversaries of when they first became sick come and go, many survivors are relieved they have an important new date to look forward to: the day when they will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
As a long-term care worker, Smith has received her first shot already.
"Which was quite emotional, and I have my second dose appointment this week, which, looking back is around the same time I might have been exposed to COVID. So it has been a full year," she said.
"I think mentally it will relieve a lot of the stress that comes with the virus, and it'll just put me in a better mental state that a year ago this was all beginning and now we're finally seeing the silver lining."
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