As a former political correspondent for the CBC, Ryan Hicks is no stranger to social causes. But working in one of Montreal’s long-term care facilities—known as CHSLDs in Quebec—at the height of the pandemic proved to be one of the most transformative experiences of his life.
During his time at the CBC, Ryan received the Amnesty International Media Award for reporting in Guatemala on the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States. He was also one of 20 journalists selected from around the world to join Journalists for Transparency, a group dedicated to reporting on transparency and corruption.
Then, in 2017, he decided to leave his successful journalism career behind to pursue a law degree at McGill, where he had earned his B.A. a decade earlier in International Development and Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Answering the call
In mid-April of this year—right after finishing his end-of-term law exams and before starting a summer position at a top New York law firm—Ryan decided to answer the call from the Quebec government asking for anyone who was able to join the front lines in CHSLDs struggling to cope with the pandemic.
It was a decision driven by personal experience and a determination to advocate for elderly care.
“First, personally, I had two grandparents who lived in a nursing home near the end of their lives so I knew how important the work was,” he says. “Then there was the journalist side of me. When I was a reporter at the Quebec National Assembly, the issue of challenges at CHSLDs would come up in terms of shortages and conditions, so that also motivated me to help.”
Knowing seniors were in dire need and that he was “healthy and available,” Ryan began working full-time as an assistant patient attendant in one of Montreal’s hardest hit CHSLDs, after completing a background check and a five-hour basic training session with the Canadian Red Cross.
His training covered things like how to use personal protective equipment (PPE) and how to feed and lift patients. Still, he says, “nothing could prepare you for actually going there and seeing what you see.”
An eye-opening experience
“I walked into the crisis and the patient attendant I was buddied with could see in my eyes how anxious I was,” he remembers. “She looked at me and said, ‘Just relax, everything’s going to be okay.”
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I going to get COVID?’ and trying to push that out of my brain to focus. And then it was just getting to the tasks at hand—feeds, diaper changes, bed changes and repeat.”
One of the things that struck him most was the extreme staff shortage, with just one patient attendant and one assistant assigned to as many as 20 residents at a time—a lot of whom had advanced dementia and required more care than the personnel could possibly give.
“When I got there, it was probably one of the last very bad days in terms of staffing,” he says. “The next week, the military and more volunteers came so we got a huge boost in terms of people power. But even then, residents were still only getting the basic minimum standard of care.”
Five weeks in to working at the CHSLD, Ryan penned an open letter to Quebec’s Premier François Legault, urging him to join him on the front lines to witness the devastating conditions first hand.
“Let’s be clear, everyone knew the challenges these facilities faced even before the crisis,” he says. “No government demonstrated the political will to provide our seniors with the care they deserve. And that’s what this pandemic has shown—it blew open the issue and exposed the problems.”
Navigating ‘the jungle’
The virus spread like wildfire in Quebec’s already vulnerable elderly care homes. And because of the overcrowded conditions in Ryan’s facility, COVID-positive and -negative patients were forced to share floors.
In an effort to contain the spread and avoid cross-contamination, the workers used red, yellow and green tape to indicate positive, potentially positive and COVID-free zones respectively. “We called our floor ‘the jungle’ because you had to constantly look where you were stepping,” he explains.
Compounding an already challenging situation, the workers had to change out of their PPE each time they moved zones, which meant removing scrubs, gowns, gloves, surgical masks and plastic visors multiple times a day.
“The PPE was so suffocating, anything you would do that was physical would zap your energy. I remember coming home and lying on my couch feeling like I still had the mask on.”
‘Nothing can really prepare you’
“One of the biggest challenges for me, and it really symbolizes the ongoing tragedy, is that people are dying and can’t have their loved ones with them. (Most facilities are now allowing a limited number of visitors, but residents went weeks without seeing their family members).
“Then I would get residents asking me when it’s going to be over and those conversations were the most difficult. Or when people got a positive diagnosis and needed reassurance—nothing can really prepare you for that.”
With no time to reflect on the gravity of the situation while he was busy taking care of patients, Ryan says it hit him hardest on the commute to work each day.
“On the Metro in the morning, I’d start to feel the emotional weight of everything that was going on,” he remembers. “But I’m fortunate to have amazing family and friends who checked in on me regularly. And the McGill Faculty of Medicine and School of Nursing had weekly reflection sessions on Zoom that helped a lot.”
Strength in community
Another thing that helped lift Ryan’s spirits was seeing so many people step up to support seniors when they were most in need.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to be honest, to be able to go and work with soldiers and staff who have all come together to make a difference for one of the most vulnerable communities during this crisis.”
McGill students were among those who stepped up, and Ryan remembers crossing paths with many student volunteers at his facility. “It goes to show how being engaged in our community is a big part of the McGill DNA and it was so moving to see that in action.”
While there are hopeful signs that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, Ryan stresses that the crisis in Quebec’s long-term care homes is far from over, and he encourages other students to do their part in any way they can.
“It’s our collective responsibility and we can create the change. Maybe you can’t volunteer but you can write to your local MPs to tell them this is an important issue, that we value our elders, and put pressure on them for change.”