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Meet two Concordia grads at the forefront of COVID-19 care

‘There are moments when you want to cry. And there are moments when a patient gets better.’
November 4, 2020
By Ursula Leonowicz, BA 97, with files from Joseph Leger, BA 15

While health-care workers are trained to handle acute stress, few could have adequately prepared for an event like the pandemic of 2020.

With scant experience to draw on since the outset of COVID-19, and with the long-term effects of the disease still hazy, hospital staff have had to concurrently mobilize to care for the infected and confront the threat of exposure. For many, the task has exacted a severe toll.

We spoke to two Concordia alumnae on the health-care front lines — Natalie Cousineau, BSc 96, and Emilie Casselle, BA 07 — to find out how they have coped with the challenges of the novel coronavirus, both personally and professionally.

Natalie Cousineau: emergency physician

As a staff emergency physician at a Barrie, Ontario area hospital, Natalie Cousineau is on duty 24-7. The exercise science graduate says that the unknowns associated with COVID-19 are what pose so much difficulty.

“It came on the scene as a very unpredictable disease. For many of us, it was the first time in ages that we were working 10 hours and then coming home to read for another three. Things were changing so fast, especially at the beginning. It was an exercise in flexibility and thinking on your feet, but on a completely different level.”

Another hurdle Cousineau had to overcome was how to best balance patient care with the need to self-protect and protect others, whether non-COVID patients or family members at home.

“I know a lot of colleagues — single moms — who sent their kids to live with relatives when this first started,” she says. “They either lost their childcare or couldn’t go to work, because of contagion concerns.”

Cousineau is thankful her two children, aged 10 and 12, are old enough to be aware of the pandemic but not so old that the enormity of the crisis overwhelms them.

“We sent them to live with relatives, but when my husband and I realized this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint, we brought them home. I make sure to go through a very extensive decontamination after every shift.”

‘It’s our job’

Cousineau has felt cheered — and somewhat bemused — by the moral support directed at health-care workers since the start of the pandemic. A note was recently left on her doorstep that read: “Thank you for the work that you do. And thank you for putting yourself out there on our behalf.”

“It feels kind of awkward to accept that kind of praise,” she says. “Most of us have been doing this behind the scenes for so many years because it’s our job. Practically speaking, what would be most appreciated is having the personal protective equipment and tangible support that we need.”

To help meet that demand, volunteers have stepped up at the hospital where Cousineau works.

“They’re sewing us masks and surgical caps. The masks are really just for staff to take home, to use when we go out in public or with our families, but it’s so nice to not even have to think about it.

“It’s very heartwarming. It feels like we’re supported and like everyone is behind us.”

Emilie Casselle: nurse clinician

Under normal circumstances, Emilie Casselle spends her work hours in the surgery department of a cardiac unit at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

Since the onset of COVID-19, however, the nurse clinician and human relations grad has supported a number of other units as needed.

“It changes all the time and that’s something that I’ve heard echoed from health-care workers generally,” says Casselle. “We’re having to be a lot more adaptable and flexible than before.

“We don’t always know where we’re going to work on any particular day. It might be a COVID unit, an ambulatory care unit or a general floor. The lack of predictability about what our work is going to look like has been a big thing to deal with.”

Because of her risk for exposure, Casselle has not been able to see any friends or family for quite some time.

“I haven’t seen my mother since this started. Health-care workers are showing up to work and putting their patients first, which is incredible, because everybody has their own home life or situation that they might be worried about. I’m really impressed and in awe of colleagues that continue to do that.”

‘I’ve surrendered to not knowing what the future holds’

Though the pandemic has compelled health-care workers like Casselle to face a new and uncertain reality, the alumna — with an assist from her online yoga community — has adopted a mindful approach.

“I’ve surrendered to not knowing what the future holds and not knowing what’s going to happen beyond this shift. I’ve been able to live a lot more in the present and that’s been a positive thing.

“There are moments when you want to cry, during and after work. And then there are moments when a patient gets better. I was on a COVID unit the other day and was able to talk to a couple of patients about discharging them. That gives you hope.”

Casselle also hopes the pandemic spurs calls to provide essential workers with better pay and more security.

“There are people working minimum wage jobs who are exposing themselves to tremendous risk. Praise is great but what are we as a society going to do to support them?”


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