Facing risk on the front lines

HEU members among many who contracted the virus

Health care workers in B.C. put themselves at risk reporting to work each shift during a pandemic. And many have tested positive for COVID-19, including 262 seniors' care workers, as of August 6 – health officials are not providing regular updates for other health care workers.

Several HEU members, who contracted COVID-19, spoke with the Guardian about the illness, and their recovery.

Members experienced many of the same symptoms we’ve heard about from public health officials, including headaches, sore throat, chills and hallucinations.

Margaret Sankowski, a clerk at Children’s and Women’s Hospital, also experienced memory loss. But Sankowski distinctly remembers when a doctor came into her room at Peace Arch Hospital to say she needed to be transferred to another hospital because she wasn’t responding to treatment.

In April, Sankowski was admitted to Peace Arch, just a few days after her diagnosis. Doctors wanted to intubate her, but she refused. “I didn’t want to go anywhere,” she said. “I wanted to stay there in that room.”

After 12 days at Peace Arch, Sankowski was discharged. She’s still experiencing anxiety from her illness, and her doctor diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fred Bartolome didn’t get admitted to hospital when he was diagnosed on April 5. He remained at home, with a public health nurse checking in on him daily. But with pre-existing and underlying medical conditions – including asthma and severe bouts with pneumonia – having COVID-19 was extremely scary.

“When I was diagnosed, my world collapsed,” he said.

Bartolome, a care aide at UBC Hospital, was able to recover at home, but it took seven to 10 days for him to start feeling better. He’s now back at work caring for seniors, but still has trouble sleeping.

On March 18, Keely Wagner was called by her employer to go to an urgent care clinic for a COVID-19 test. On the walk over, which was just three blocks from her home, Wagner was out of breath and knew something was wrong.

Wagner is a recreational activity aide at Vancouver’s Haro Park, one of the long-term care homes hardest-hit by the virus. A total of 28 residents and 27 staff were confirmed to have COVID-19 before the outbreak was under control.

She has been on and off work since her diagnosis, and explains recovery is different for everyone. “I experience shortness of breath when I wear a mask at work,” said Wagner. “After about three or four hours, I’m exhausted and getting headaches. I still don’t fully have my sense of smell and taste back.”

Wagner has some advice for other HEU members: “If you get COVID, stay home and take care of yourself. Don’t feel guilty. Take the time and stay home until you feel better.”

Originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Guardian