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Mental Health

Six Feet Between Us

An essential-service worker’s perspective on 65 days without a daughter’s hugs and kisses

Stacy Middlemiss, RPN

Reprinted from the "COVID-19" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 16 (2), pp. 10-12

photo of Stacy

Until recently, I was the manager of Warmland, a 24-hour homeless shelter in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. Working at Warmland has its challenges on the best of days. But March 17, 2020, is a date I’ll always remember. That was the day I had to make the difficult decision to close our 15 cold-weather mats, limit the number of people inside at any one time, rethink and rebuild every process that our 30-bed, 24-apartment shelter had ever known.

It was also one of the last times I would hug and kiss my five-year-old daughter for more than two months.

The fear and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was overwhelming. Neither I nor the staff—nor anyone else—knew for certain if we were putting ourselves or our families at risk by coming to work. People we knew treated us like lepers because we work so closely with marginalized populations. After all, surely if anyone was going to get COVID-19, it would be the homeless, right?! We now know that this kind of assumption is simplistic, but it is still common and shapes how people view those who work with marginalized populations.

By week’s end, both my child’s school and her daycare had also closed. I felt that the only safe option was to send my daughter to stay with my parents in a small community 15 minutes away, where we would continue to visit six feet apart from each other for the next 65 days.

If you’re a mother, you’ll understand the absolute anguish that comes from being separated from the only person who’s ever heard your heartbeat from the inside. As if it wasn’t hard enough trying to find my way through the pandemic, I had to do it separated from my little girl.

I was constantly rattled with mom guilt, wondering if I was doing the right thing. My daughter is so insightful for her age and she understood the importance of my work. I am grateful to have parents who were not only willing and able to care for my child but kept her busy—helping her with school work and science experiments, making jam with her and teaching her how to ride her bike. At the same time, my daughter followed the six-foot rule religiously, knowing her Nan was vulnerable to “the germ.”

People judged me, though, for sure. But as a registered psychiatric nurse who chooses to work with vulnerable populations, I’m used to being misunderstood. People often questioned my choice to work for a non-profit rather than the local health authority; they wondered how I could spend my days serving people who are perceived as not wanting to help themselves. In fact, the part I loved most about my job at Warmland was that it gave me the freedom to support people exactly as they are.

But in this case, I felt another question hanging in the air: How could I choose work over my daughter? I had my answer ready: I wasn’t choosing work over my daughter. I was choosing to keep my daughter healthy and safe. I knew my daughter was well cared for and getting love—and probably more attention than I could have given her at the time, as I was so consumed with work logistics and anxieties. And I knew she was safe, while I did the work that I knew no one else would do if I didn’t do it.

I was put on earth to do the work I do, that much I know for certain. Each day is different and unpredictable. Some days we celebrate milestones, big and small. Some days are filled with profound sadness, grieving the loss of a client we had come to know as family. I spend a considerable amount of time ensuring that people’s basic needs are being met in the most respectful and dignified way possible. Some days, I make the call to clean and bandage someone up myself rather than call for an ambulance, knowing that our clients aren’t always given the most compassion by paramedics or hospital staff.

COVID-19 as made the current opioid crisis even worse. Even during the pandemic, I have risked my life more than once to breathe air into a person’s lungs. At the end of every single day, I am thankful for the opportunity that each day brings. I love my work and the people I serve, every single one of them!

It’s easy to see the undesirable parts of my work, especially if you’re looking at Warmland or other shelters (and the marginalized populations they serve) from a distance. I hear from others, almost daily, “I could never do your job.” But that tells me they only see the negative aspects of my work. They don’t get to see the genuine care and compassion that my clients hold for me. My clients are the first to recognize when I’m showing signs of stress, the first ones to notice if I change my hair or wear a new item of clothing. They compliment me often on the work I’m doing, and they know the difficulty that comes with having to make hard decisions.

Outsiders view the people I serve as criminals, mentally unstable and dangerous, but I see them as human beings. Everyone has a story, and I am interested in that story. That perspective has always served me well.

Under my management, Warmland was always a place for people to spend their days as they wished, a place that enables people to be who they are without facing judgement. But in March 2020, we had to change how we functioned. The shelter was no longer open during the day, except to people who need to briefly use the facilities. People were moved out into the world to spend their days on benches and sidewalks, moved along from place to place by the city authorities or the police. Many are scared and anxious, and some are mentally unable to comprehend what is happening in the world right now. People are feeling deserted, abandoned and alone. My heart goes out to the people who have no option other than to hope that someone will figure out a plan for them during this pandemic.

Support for health care workers in my community has been astounding, and rightly so. Yet I know that many Warmland and other shelter staff, who are frontline workers, don’t feel that they fit into the same category. As a nurse who has worked in various health care facilities, I can tell you that the work done at shelters is just as important as the work done by other health care workers, and in many cases, shelter staff face greater challenges. Many staff members don’t have extensive training in this line of work or in health care generally, but they have heart, compassion and dedication. No amount of training can provide those traits and those skills.

I was extremely grateful for my Warmland staff, and I was proud to see how they stepped up to the challenge of providing care in the circumstances, not just by showing up for work but by supporting our clients with love and compassion. Each person on the team brought something special to the shelter; together, they made the place great. So, as we move through the coming days, weeks and months, I ask that you take the time to consider all the frontline staff and essential service workers who dedicate time and skill to their work in shelters and other non-profits that serve marginalized populations in the Cowichan Valley and beyond. They are all heroes.  

I am no longer at Warmland Shelter. I am now working with the same vulnerable population out in the community as well as on the psychiatric unit in the local hospital. But my experiences at Warmland and the work of my dedicated colleagues continue to inspire me daily.

After 65 days, I made the decision to bring my daughter home when I noticed she was trying to touch me quickly during our visits. I knew she needed me to be closer. The daycare had decided to reopen in the coming weeks, so the decision seemed like the right one.

Along with many other children in BC, my daughter went back to school in September, and I am trying to have faith in the system. We do our part to stay home when we have a cold, wash our hands and wear masks. We have reduced the number of public places we go, for sure. She is thriving in spite of “the germ,” which shows me just how resilient children really are when they are given the love and support they need.

The day we picked her up, she ran to my husband and me and we had a big group hug that none of us wanted to end. I remember the smell of her hair distinctly, and I knew in that moment how much I had missed everything about her. Having her live with my parents was the right decision for her and our family at the time, but I hope we never have to make such a decision again.

About the author

Stacy is a registered psychiatric nurse who lives and works in the Cowichan Valley, where she is passionate about supporting people where they’re at and enjoys seeing the benefit it has on people’s health and wellness. In recovery herself, Stacy uses her innate understanding of the trials and tribulations of addiction to connect with and understand those she serves

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