Hélène Lefebvre, BScN, is a nurse at the Jewish General Hospital and is currently finishing her Bachelor's in Nursing at the University of Montreal. She was interviewed on September 8, 2021 by Laura Crump.
Surpassing the Learning Curve
“During COVID-19 you can be the junior nurse and the senior nurse in the same week,” a nurse told Hélène Lefebvre early in the pandemic. She was right: over the first year Lefebvre acquired a huge range of experiences and responsibilities, bolstered by some deep relationships with other nurses and patients. “It's kind of weird," she said. "You feel like you've been a nurse for ten years because you've been through so many things.”
At the start of 2020, Lefebvre had been a post-partum nurse in the maternity ward of the Jewish General Hospital while pursuing an undergraduate degree in nursing at the Université de Montréal. But when the pandemic hit, she was moved to screening, and following a brief stint there she joined a newly created medicine unit. “I wasn't trained [for that unit]," she said. "I never had a real orientation.”
Lefebvre asked other nurses lots of questions and before long found herself leading a team of even less experienced nurses. “I was a junior nurse but technically I was the senior of the juniors,” she said. There were lots of challenges for the young nurse who was suddenly facing situations for which she had little training or experience.
“Every time we had a patient not doing well, I thought, ‘Please, please don't code.’ I know what to do in theory because I went to all the code blue fairs, but it was a bit overwhelming," she said. "I'm lucky that we managed the situations"—including an actual flood—"that we had.”
At the beginning of the third wave, an outbreak hit their unit, sweeping through staff and patients alike. “It felt like a fire that was not stopping," said Lefebvre. "One day I literally cried all the way while walking home. One of my favorite patients was positive. It was the moment when I thought: Is it gonna stop? Am I gonna get it? Are we all gonna get it?"
They were a small team and almost everyone did get COVID. Following the outbreak, they were moved to a COVID unit, where Lefebvre continued to take on leadership roles. Although she herself was in orientation, she was put in charge on the second day because she was the most senior nurse present. "They were all junior nurses," she said, "who had never seen a dead person." Lefebvre quickly stepped in and found herself teaching others about palliative care.
"Sometimes we would play music and dance when we had fewer patients"
The pandemic had another, unusual impact on Lefebvre. “It made me do something I would have never done otherwise, but I decided life is short so I dyed my hair pink,” she said. “Now I'll be able to tell my children that during COVID your mother changed her hair to pink because she wanted to have a little bit of fun.”
Having fun and moments of levity turned out to be essential for Lefebvre and her team. “Sometimes we would play music and dance when we had fewer patients," she said. "Sometimes we’d be having fun and patients would look at us like, ‘Aren't you supposed to be burnt out?’ But just because somebody makes jokes doesn't mean that we are not burnt out. I think I speak for all of the nurses when I say we are tired of COVID.”
Despite being tired of the pandemic, Lefebvre remains committed to a career in nursing. “Patients ask me ‘If you won the lottery, what would you do?’ and I would continue working,” she said. “Maybe not full time, but I love being a nurse. I think we have the best job ever.”