COVID 19 a tough slog for northern health care workers
- NC Raine | February 22, 2021
Rural communities in Saskatchewan have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, and the burden of staying afloat rests largely on the shoulders of their health care professionals.
Eagle Feather News spoke with two of the many health care workers fighting against COVID-19, to hear how the pandemic has effected their lives, mental health, and community.
“You wake up thinking about COVID, you go to bed thinking about COVID. It's exhausting,” said Joanne Natomagan.
Natomagan is a Public Health Nurse and native of the Northern Village of Pinehouse. She worked as a Registered Nurse at St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon until last September, when she returned to her hometown to take a position as a Public Health nurse.
In early January 2021, Pinehouse declared a state of emergency, after COVID-19 cases rocketed from two cases to 101 in just a couple weeks. The town has a population of only 1,052.
“It was very quiet here, until about a month ago. More than anything, it's just been really mentally exhausting,” Natomagan said.
“Some days you're doing okay, and other days your morale is just low. You have to take it one day at a time.”
Natomagan said initially, she was scared of contracting the virus, fearing she'd bring it home to her three-year-old daughter. She said everyone in the town has had to make a major adjustment – a close-knit community is now expected to be isolated.
“It's hard, not being able to go out and visit, to see the people you grew up with. It's difficult, mentally. But it's still nice to be somewhere familiar, where you can see familiar faces when you drive by.”
Natomagan said after the COVID-19 cases spiked, the community came together more, not less. People are encouraging each other any way they can online or over the phone, she said.
“People here make sure everyone feels like they're not in this alone.”
“It's that (sense of community) and the people that I work with that have kept me sane.”
There's a similar sense of community in La Loche, where Justina Kilfoyl works as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). Kilfoyl has been working in her hometown since graduating six years ago, and said the past year has been the most exhausting in her career.
“It's been very, at times, frustrating. It's been tiring, for both myself and our health care team. We were swamped at the beginning of it. And we're still short-staffed all the time,” she said.
La Loche has seen multiple outbreaks in the community and their long term care home, including one of the first outbreaks in northern Saskatchewan, last April. In December, La Loche and the neighbouring Clearwater River Dene Nation had 116 active cases.
Kilfoyl said it was frustrating having roads closed and feeling like an already-isolated community had less access to the essentials.
“It felt like we were being confined to our community,” she said.
“Once people started realizing numbers were going down, and started socializing again, we'd see another outbreak. The numbers keep escalating. So it's been hard to contain.”
Being in an isolated community, Kilfoyl said they aren't adequately equipped to handle large outbreaks. They often have to send patients down south to get health care, or forgo important funeral customs.
“That was really tough, not having (funerals). Not just on (the health care workers) but the whole community. We respect our elders, and we have important services to honour them.”
Despite the hardships, Kilfoyl said the town's spirit has remained strong and positive, something she'd like to see more of when people hear about La Loche.
“When you look up La Loche, you think of a bad place. But this community is so resilient, and determined, and giving. I wish that was reflected more in the news.”
As for herself, despite being exhausted day-to-day, Kilfoyl said she maintains her mental health from lessons from her elders.
“I've always been told by elders that you need to take care of yourself. I try to take 10 or 15 minutes for myself and get out every emotion that I need to get out. If I need to cry, I cry. But I try to take care of myself as much as I can so I'm able to take care of others.”