Julia Mazzonna, BNI, is a nurse clinician at the Jewish General Hospital. She was interviewed by Christina Clausen on March 25, 2021.
A "Lifetime" of Suffering
What Julia Mazzonna remembers most about the first wave of the pandemic is the suffering. She still finds it hard to talk about without crying.
When COVID-19 hit, she was working part-time as an RN on an internal medicine unit at the Jewish General Hospital, and completing her final semester of a Bachelor of Nursing at McGill. Her last internship was soon cancelled and Mazzonna found herself working as an extender, moving from one COVID ward to another depending on where she was needed most.
She saw what the virus was doing to people. "I describe it as a feeling of suffocation because I've seen so many patients well, I guess, suffocate," she said. "You can't get that from the media. You don't understand it until you see it."
Mazzonna witnessed it over and over again. "The number of patients in the short amount of time that it happened to, it was just incredible. I don't even know if I have a word for it," she said.
The majority of her patients in those early days were palliative cases. "These patients were obviously not going to make it out alive and I just didn't want them to suffer," she said. "I was a very big advocate in terms of properly medicating [them] so that they could be more sedated and more comfortable as they passed."
She was also often the only line of communication the patients had with their families. There were a lot of phone calls and FaceTime where family members were "begging their loved one to fight and make it out alive," said Mazzonna. "It was heart wrenching because they couldn't come in."
Particularly with the geriatric population, spouses were frequently too old or too at risk to enter a hot zone, " so they couldn't even be there to hold [the patient's] hand as they passed," she said.
During the first wave, "everything was a hot zone," said Mazzonna. As a nurse in the zone, "you couldn't pee, you couldn't drink, you couldn't eat for hours and every time you had to do one of those things, you had to completely leave your patients behind," she explained. "You had to leave the hot zone, take a sip of water and then go back in." At the same time, she knew it was better for the patients because they weren't so isolated.
When the hallways were clean zones, it was easier for the nurses in some ways but harder for the patients. When a patient wasn't doing well, staff would often be stationed at the window outside a patient's room. Mazzonna worried that having people watching would make the patients "feel like they're at a zoo and they’re the animal attraction."
But "it's not because we're staring at the patient," she explained. "It's to support the staff who are inside the room who can't come out to, you know, grab an alcohol swab. We need someone on the outside."
It was a lot to deal with, all at once. "It's like a lifetime of suffering and death in the span of weeks,” said Mazzonna. When she caught COVID herself, it was almost "a blessing in disguise," she said, because it gave her the break she needed "from being around all the death."
Despite it all, when the head nurse asked for two volunteers for the COVID ward during the second wave, Mazzonna put up her hand. "Everyone was like, 'Why are you going back?'" she said. But something in her knew she needed to.
"I guess it's given me closure in some ways," she said. "It's given me confidence as a person, but also as a nurse."