White Coat Black Art·Q&A

Maria Boutilier: housekeeper and health-care hero

Maria Boutilier is an unsung hero of the pandemic for keeping up with the frenetic pace of cleaning and getting rooms and stretchers ready for patients sick with COVID.
Maria Valverde as an illustrated superhero. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Maria Valverde works as a housekeeper in the ER at the Halifax Infirmary Hospital. ER physician Dr. Sam Campbell nominated Maria for taking on extra shifts to tackle the additional cleaning duties of COVID. There was another reason: Maria had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Almost a year later, Dr. Brian Goldman speaks with Maria again. A lot has changed and Maria is doing much better now. Her story of generosity and resilience will inspire you. 

*Maria formerly went by her married name Maria Boutilier.

Original story runs below.

Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat Black Art, asked Canadians to nominate an unsung health-care hero of the pandemic: someone who made a difference. Dr. Sam Campbell, ER physician at Halifax Infirmary Hospital says his colleague Maria Boutilier is an unsung hero. He, along with Maria Boutilier, talked to Goldman about what it's like to work as a housekeeper in the emergency department during the pandemic.

Dr. Sam Campbell, why do you think Maria is a health-care hero? 

Sam Campbell: Our housekeepers have been chronically under-resourced and Maria has always stood out. We have 45 beds in our emergency department. We see about 200 patients a day, so if you imagine the unbelievable stress of literally turning over 45 beds, each several times. It's mopping and cleaning every single part of that room. It can take up to two hours. 

The other thing is the donning and doffing of clothes, getting dressed for COVID patients. Maria was just wonderful. She made sure that the doctors were properly covered before you went into see a COVID patient, and that you were properly uncovered when you came out. 

Maria Valverde was a housekeeper in the Emergency Department at Halifax Infirmary Hospital. (Submitted by Maria Boutilier )

Wow. Now I'm exhausted. Just hearing you talk about that. Maria, can you give us a sense of how the pandemic changed your job as a housekeeper in the emergency department? 

Maria Boutilier: It put a lot more demands on us, for sure. It put us in a situation where we didn't have anything to go by — it was unfamiliar territory so we all just kind of had to figure it out. What I do remember is the look on everybody's faces: this look of concern. We were all under a lot of pressure. Cleaning rooms after a COVID patient had been intubated, that was challenging because nobody wants to get the disease. But we figured it out. We kind of created our own methods of staying safe and cleaning. We shared our information as to what was working and what could be improved upon. We kept the conversation open. 

Dr. Sam Campbell is chief of the Charles V. Keating Emergency and Trauma Centre. He says we should celebrate housekeepers who were critical in keeping COVID from spreading in the Emergency Department. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Sam Campbell: And another thing, Brian, as an emergency physician you know what it's like when you deal with a tragic circumstance, which happens quite often. The patient finally leaves to the operating room or the morgue, and there's blood everywhere. It looks as if someone has just walked into that room and spread red stuff all over the place. There's discarded equipment. There's the spilled stuff on the floor. And although we're careful with sharp needles, there's always the danger that someone's forgotten something. And I just think of what it must be like to be the housekeeper that is there alone mopping up pieces of people, pieces of people's lives.

Without training, without anyone taking you by the hand, without an ethicist or a counselor providing assistance. Yes. You know what? Until you said this, I hadn't even thought of it. And I've worked in the emergency department for over 35 years. 

Sam Campbell: And when we walk out of those rooms, we look at our nursing colleagues and we say, well, that was really rough for you, whereas the housekeeper just goes in by themselves and within a short space of time the room is exactly like it was before a patient walks in. And no one's saying to them, "Wow, that must be terrible." That must have been the most awful experience: there was someone's brother or father or kid that you've just come in and mopped up, essentially. 

Maria Boutilier: When I started working in the emergency department, I saw the fragility of life. What I will say is: I always look at everything from a compassionate and a humanitarian perspective. When I saw patients, I was full of compassion. I always said to myself, "My goodness, it must be hard to be in that position."

And I also thought of the fragility of life. One minute you're alive and the next minute you could be passing on. It takes really special people to eventually get kind of used to that kind of environment. I'm not saying you take it cheaply, but you definitely get used to it and you see how fragile we are as the human species. I guess the lesson to be learned from all of this is how important it is to be good to each other. We have to be really sensitive and good to each other.

Produced by Jeff Goodes.