A CHSLD nurse who, until recently, had been working as a companion at the Maison Herron senior home near Montreal, has been told that her services are no longer needed. She has penned an open letter to Quebec Premier François Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, imploring them to allow her back.
“I wasn’t in a good place,” Kristy-Lyn Kemp tells me. “I was watching so many people die around me, and I was struggling. April 6 was a particularly hard day for me because we lost so many people. I was losing weight, crying a lot, I was a wreck. I knew I had to take a step back.”
Kemp is a licensed practical nurse (LPN) who works at the Maison Herron, a private long-term care facility in Dorval, which, early on, became emblematic of so many things that went wrong in the CHSLD network and other senior homes in Quebec after the pandemic struck.
Kemp started working at CHSLD Herron as a Preposée aux Bénéficiaires (PAB) in June 2018 and had been working as a nurse since receiving her licence. She’s currently in school to become a registered nurse and is slated to graduate in 2022.
When the pandemic hit, she continued to work through it all: the deaths, the staff and equipment shortages, the disorganization and the lack of a clear chain of command.
“I stayed throughout this war because I love the residents like my own family,” she writes in her open letter. “I stayed because it was the right thing to do. The only thing, really.”
Sitting with those who were dying
On April 7, feeling her mental state deteriorating, Kemp decided that, for the time being, she could no longer work as a nurse in the CHSLD. However, she wanted to continue to do what she could as a companion and kept visiting the patients daily.
“I lost my own dad in 2011 from brain cancer and when he was admitted to palliative care, I was so grateful for the people working there,” she says. “It stayed with me. The thought of someone dying alone just breaks my heart.”
So, that’s what she did. Day in, day out, for five to six hours each evening, Kemp would go in and sit with them, hold their hand, make sure they weren’t dehydrated, let them know they were loved.
I first spoke to Kemp two weeks ago, for my editorial Quebec has abandoned frontline healthcare workers. I had learned that she was videotaping quick messages or taking pictures of the residents at Herron, for a private Facebook group of family members desperate for some news about their loved ones.
At the time, the COVID-19 outbreak in CHSLDs had just become Quebec’s headline news, and Herron was being exposed as outbreak central with Premier Legault himself admitting “gross negligence” had probably played a part in the 31 deaths at the facility.
I had been allowed access to the private group (which has since removed all journalists) and I was extremely moved by Kemp’s daily updates, the gentleness of her way with the residents and the obvious gratitude of family members so eager for news of their loved ones.
Gratitude from family members
“She is the only person who has done what the CIUSSS West Island (the regional health board) promised to do from the beginning, which is to make communication with the families a priority,” says Peter Wheeland.
Both of Wheeland’s parents were at Maison Herron until recently. His father Ken was transferred to another Montreal-area long-term care home on March 17 and died there of COVID-19 complications on April 4. His mother Connie was transferred to Lakeshore Hospital with COVID-19 on April 10, but has now recovered and was discharged into her family’s care.
“Kristy has the support and thanks of all the families at Herron and deserves a medal, not a lecture from some bureaucrat,” Wheeland says.
Pamela Newton, whose mother Denise was at Herron and also passed away from COVID-19, agrees. “Kristy was one of the many kind nurses and staff I knew at Herron,” she says. “She messaged me and told me she sat with my mom and made sure she was getting her medication every four hours. Knowing this has eased some of the trauma I’ve gone through after losing her.”
Newton says that being at the residence every day, sometimes twice a day, allowed her to get to know the staff and appreciate their work. She had nothing but good things to say about Kristy.
“My mom was no ‘cadeau’ — mostly ornery, and from a generation where race and social class was prevalent. So, she wasn’t always a pleasure to assist. People like Kristy have huge hearts and the patience of saints to be able to work with sometimes-difficult residents, day in, day out,” she says.
Crickets from the government
Despite the families’ gratitude and glowing reviews, on April 24, Kemp was informed that she would no longer be allowed to offer her services as a companion and would only be permitted in as an LPN, something she doesn’t want to do at the moment.
She has yet to receive any sort of acknowledgment of her open letter from government officials, although, she told me, she dreams that Prime Minister Trudeau would read it live during one of his briefings.
“I know it’s a pipe dream, but, hey…” she chuckles.
The West Island CIUSSS has said it would not comment on the matter.
Not only is she not mentally ready to resume her shifts as a nurse at the CHSLD, in her letter Kemp cites mismanagement as a main motivator.
“There is no clear chain of command and this presents a very dangerous situation if someone’s health takes a turn for the worse,” she explains. She insists she works for Herron and not the CIUSSS that has taken over. While she’s happy that additional staff have been brought in, she still sees too many issues with how staff are treated, which, she feels, partially explains chronic shortages.
But her primary focus right now remains returning to Herron to be with residents, many of whom have known her for years and are comforted by her presence in these stressful times.
She finds it problematic that she was asked to stop coming in as a companion yet was told to return to the CHSLD as a nurse.
“When I started seeing my mental health affected, I knew that this was the way I could help and still remain available to them. It’s insulting to have them say that what I was doing is not important.
“Loneliness can kill the elderly,” she says, “and I’m trying to keep them alive with companionship, love and respect.”
While Kemp isn’t quite certain why she was asked to stop coming in, especially when staff shortages are so dire across the province the Premier has had to publicly beg for people to volunteer their services — whether they have healthcare experience, or not — and asked the military to assist, she suspects her attempts to remain a communication resource for families left in the dark might have played some role.
“Maybe I got into trouble for that, I don’t know,” she says.
Regardless of the reasons, she wants back in.
“I just want to be able to sit with them,” she says. “I would do it for free, if I have to.”
Normal wasn’t working
Asked about what she hopes comes out of all of this, for the first time during this conversation Kemp’s voice wavers. She starts discussing the “massive failure of our healthcare system” and I can feel her becoming emotional.
“We had warnings,” she says. “We knew that COVID-19 was going to primarily affect the elderly. Not only did we not help them, we initially pulled resources and staff and sent them elsewhere.”
Kemp believes it speaks to society’s lack of prioritizing seniors’ welfare.
“We keep talking about how we cherish our elders, and frankly, that’s bullshit,” she tells me. “We have an entire segment of the population that is undervalued.”
Kemp hopes this crisis will serve as a catalyst for much-needed change.
“I keep hearing people saying they want to go back to normal,” she says, “and I think, ‘Normal wasn’t working!’ If normal was working, this wouldn’t have happened. If we go back to ‘normal,’ we’ve learned nothing.” ■
Kemp’s open letter can be found in its entirety here. It deserves to be read — ideally by Justin Trudeau during one of his live briefings.
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.
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