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The Vancouver Island resident is one of the many thousands of BC nurses who’ve endured the COVID-19 pandemic since the virus emerged almost two years ago. And she’s grateful for the supports she relies on to help get her through, from friends to family and co-workers.

For the past 12 years, Slade has worked for Island Health. She is currently a public health nurse on staff at the Saanich Health Unit.

Slade is reflective when speaking about the effect the pandemic has had on her life. Before COVID, she had never questioned her decision to become a nurse. But she says the pandemic’s arrival and impact on the health-care system had her wondering about her career choice.

“That seemed a bit crazy to me because ever since I was a young child, I felt called to the work of caring for others, especially newborns,” she remarks. “In my high school yearbook, I’m the student voted most likely to be a nurse or work with babies.”

Like many nurses, Slade has been profoundly affected by the pandemic.

“In the beginning, I remember asking, ‘Is this real?’ ‘This cannot be happening’ and ‘Pinch me’ – not in the storybook, fairy-tale way but ‘pinch me’ to wake me up from this awful nightmare,” she recalls. In hindsight, Slade now sees that her body’s fight-or-flight mechanism was triggered by the overwhelming sense of fear, disbelief and shock.

“At the start, there was little to no PPE and there were very few instituted COVID workplace protocols, procedures and parameters – and that was scary.”

Slade says she felt like the world was unravelling around her, but as an essential health-care provider and nurse, she also felt compelled to rally and present to work.

“Those initial weeks were trying, and I definitely experienced all ranges of emotion,” she reports. “It was like being stuck on an unending roller coaster. But we came to work at risk to ourselves and our families to attend to the needs of our patients.”

She says the demands of the pandemic, such as ballooning cases and exposures, and changing public health measures made her public health work an ever-moving target.

“One day you would present to work, have a morning meeting – if conditions allowed – and assign duties and prioritize the day,” Slade remembers. “Then, with little or no notice, COVID updates would revise the plan and bam, off you would go to attend to the new pressing situation.”

The conditions required an inordinate amount of patience, composure and flexibility.

“What I have learned, witnessed and experienced is that nurses are, bar none, the most incredible group of humans able to do all these things – on most days – to an immeasurable level. I have seen how COVID has challenged even the most seasoned nurses and the extremes it has subjected them to are almost impossible to describe.”

It is this sense of gratitude that’s key to Slade’s resiliency. Gratitude helps foster adaptive coping mechanisms and builds our inner strength to combat stress by managing positive emotions like satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure.

Slade’s gratitude was on display during National Nursing Week 2021. Every May, the week is an occasion for the wider community to acknowledge the valuable work nurses do. Needless to say, National Nursing Week has taken on a special significance on account of the COVID-19 health emergency and the opioid crisis.

In celebration of National Nursing Week 2020, BCNU encouraged members to take time to thank their colleagues and the nursing community for their ongoing efforts to provide safe patient care. We saw an outpouring of recognition and gratitude when hundreds of members wrote to tell us what their co-workers mean to them and to acknowledge the important work they do.

Slade continued the tradition in 2021 by sharing her own message of gratitude and hope in support of her co-workers and all nurses in the province who are doing their best under the most trying of conditions.

“I am thankful to work with exceptional nursing colleagues with hearts as big as Mount Washington.”

“When some needed to take a step back, others took up the call and went out to the front lines.”

Slade was also humbled by the nurses who came out of retirement, like the one who administered her COVID shot. “I remember thanking her and she shared a bit about her nursing story and how she felt called to come back to assist in the pandemic crisis. She also showed me the steps to prepping a COVID vaccine as well as the new charting system for the clinics,” Slade wrote. “This nurse brought tears to my eyes by demonstrating the life-long role of the nurse as mentor, teacher and advocate for health, which extends beyond the lines of nursing practice and does not end with retirement.”

Slade also recognized everyone on her team at the Saanich Health Unit who continue to support her public health nursing work to this day.

“I’m privileged to work with an amazing crew of leaders: my clinical coordinator, manager and hiring manager – who came out of retirement to head up the COVID response team – as well as a stellar administration team, housekeeping staff and many others who keep the ship afloat,” she wrote. “Navigating the tumultuous waters that is COVID would not have been so manageable without the staff at Saanich Health Unit. I would not be where I am as a nurse without the support of people who have been, and are present, in my daily work and life. For that, I am so very thankful, I praise you and I see you.”

Slade says the pandemic has allowed her to better realize her personal resilience and strength. “I feel better at identifying when I need to ask for help, take a step back or recognize when that big ol’ wall is coming, and I am going to hit it full on.”

But she’s quick to note that personal resilience is no replacement for the structural changes that are desperately needed, and renewed investments in nursing and health care that would see improved staffing and working conditions.

Nurses have the answers, Slade argues, and their voices need to be heard.

“If you’re not listening to that nurse who’s been on their feet for four days and four nights and not bringing nurses to the table, then how can you effect positive change that ensures we don’t go back to the way it was?” she asks. “Because we cannot go back.” She says listening to those nurses who have been delivering care since day one of the pandemic is a really good place to start. “We cannot create policies and procedures based on what the higher ups think everyone needs – we need to listen to what is actually going on at the unit level.”

If there’s a silver lining, Slade suggests it’s the greater awareness of the importance of mental health that has emerged through the pandemic. “I hope we see long-term initiatives, developments and supports for mental health,” she says. “We’ve all now felt the fear of isolation and loneliness that COVID imposes, but many people experienced that well before the pandemic began. Let’s continue to speak up, listen, reach out and be there for one another.”

What else keeps Slade working even when she’s feeling exhausted by a crisis nearing two years? She says it’s the support of the wider community, especially those people who have made the effort to get behind BCNU’s call for immediate and urgent action to address the nurse staffing crisis.

“The public support that vocalizes nurses’ frustration with the deficiencies in health care definitely gives us strength,” says Slade. “But it’s the camaraderie between nurses and their unwavering capacity that inspires me to stay committed to my profession.”