Ambassador Bridge lit up under night skyA research project by UWindsor psychology and nursing professors looks at the challenges faced by local nurses working in Windsor and Detroit.

Pandemic study looks at being a nurse in a border city

Private Facebook groups. Exercise. Wine. Tears.

Local nurses working at hospitals in Windsor and Detroit have described how they are coping with the effects of the pandemic as part of a research study by psychology and nursing professors at the University of Windsor.

“The pandemic has unfolded very differently in Windsor than it has in Detroit,” said Dana Ménard, who is heading the research project that looks at the health and well-being of nurses in a border city.

Ménard, fellow psychology professor Kendall Soucie, and nursing professors Laurie Freeman and Jody Ralph, have interviewed 36 nurses working on both sides of the border for the study. All have anywhere from 1½ to 36 years of experience. Five are men.

Some work at field hospitals set up specifically to care for COVID-19 patients. Others work in intensive care, neo-natal units, labour and delivery, and cardiac care units. Several have been redeployed and are now working in new units with new schedules.

Despite their differences, some common themes have emerged.

“Nurses face significant stress due to concerns about their own and their families’ health and safety, high patient mortality rates, ethical challenges associated with patient care, and perceived unsafe working conditions,” Dr. Soucie said.

Some nurses in Detroit say they feel betrayed by their employer, telling the researchers their hospital didn’t provide sufficient protective equipment or put adequate safety protocols in place.

Some feel like pariahs in their communities. In Windsor, nurses who work in Detroit aren’t allowed to do their banking in person. On both sides of the border, nurses say people are wary of them, thinking nurses will pass on the virus to those around them.

In Windsor, where nurses are allowed to jump to the front of the line at grocery stores, they feel guilty or embarrassed doing so.

In the interviews, nurses get to talk about their good moments as well as the especially bad ones.

Camaraderie is a common theme. Nurses talk about their “work families” and the strong bonds they share with colleagues, Ménard said.

“They express doubt that people outside of nursing can understand what they’re gong through.”

There are even private Facebook groups where nurses can exchange stories and complaints and support each other.

The interviewers are hearing of difficulty sleeping, heightened anxiety, and increased feelings of depression among nurses. Nurses are isolated from their families, living in hotel rooms, in trailers, or separate parts of the house.

They miss hugging their children.

“There are some pretty heartbreaking stories,” Ménard said. “Everyone is in tears. We cry with them.”

Most interviews end with the nurse thanking the researchers for the opportunity to unload.

“They feel like they are getting things off their chests,” she said. “That’s important because it’s a profession that sometimes encourages bottling up your feelings.”

Apart from the cathartic benefits of the interviews, the research team hopes to pass on recommendations to hospitals to better support nurses.

For example, since most nurses turn to each other rather than therapists for help, perhaps hospitals should put on speakers series rather than dedicate money to counselling they won’t use, Ménard said.

Many nurses said they miss going to the gym, so the study may suggest hospitals bring in exercise equipment so nurses can work out during breaks and before or after shifts.

The project, which offers research opportunities for five students, is being funded through UWindsor’s Office of the Vice-President of Research and Innovation and the WE-Spark Health Institute, a research partnership involving the University of Windsor, Windsor Regional Hospital, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, and St. Clair College. It is one of 21 local COVID-related projects WE-Spark is supporting through its COVID-19 Rapid Response grant program.

—Sarah Sacheli