Bojan Stoiljkovic
Bojan Stoiljkovic, far right, and colleagues volunteer at a long-term care facility in Toronto.

As Canada watched COVID-19 overwhelm Italy's health care system, Bojan Stoiljkovic's only thought was how to help. Travel restrictions ruled out volunteering in Italy, and as the pandemic continued to spread, Bojan would soon be needed in Canada.

In response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Long Term Care (LTC) facilities, UHN has offered support to the Rekai Centres, LTC facilities in downtown Toronto. In April, UHN put out a call for clinical staff volunteers to assist LTC workers in their efforts to care for their patients during the outbreak. For Bojan, the opportunity to volunteer touched him on a personal level.

"My grandmother was in a LTC facility," he explained. "Not here in Canada, but it was very similar conditions. She passed away during a flu epidemic when visitors were not allowed and I wasn't able to see her when she died. When I saw the call for volunteers, I thought about her and how I would feel knowing that she needed to be cared for and that there weren't enough resources available for her. When I thought about that, I was very glad to go."

Bojan joined fellow nurses, physicians, support staff and members of the UHN leadership team to provide care to LTC residents, despite the fact that these facilities had become high-risk environments. With a pre-existing lung condition, Bojan is slightly more vulnerable than most, a fact that gave him pause.

"Being unsure whether or not my lungs would survive the infection definitely passed through my mind but then I saw the call for volunteers. They really need people to go there and help. I just thought, 'something has to be done and I can do something.' It’s not all about me – it's also about these people who are really vulnerable."

With proper personal protective equipment (PPE), health care workers can care for patients during COVID-19, even where the rate of infection is high. While PPE does not eliminate the risk of infection for health care workers, the risk is significantly lower. Typically, LTC facilities have one registered practical nurse and a staff of personal support workers (PSW) who care for residents and assist them with daily tasks.

"I was amazed to see doctors, surgeons and program directors working as PSWs and taking every opportunity to help. They weren't sitting in a corner, waiting for the shift to end, they were like 'who else is there? What can I do?' There was one surgeon going from patient to patient to cut their nails. It was so impressive to watch her."

At the end of his 12-hour shift, Bojan felt emotional, especially when thinking of his grandmother and other elders. "People in these facilities are the people who built this country – they're our mothers and fathers and they need to be well taken care of with dignity. Considering both nursing and medicine are based on holistic approach to health and patient centred care, it was nice to see that being put into practice."

"I think it's really impressive that some people choose to spend their careers helping this population. And you can learn a lot in LTC homes. Most of the technical advances in nursing are happening in LTC and nursing homes actually. There are robotics that are used for social assistance in eldercare, and when you’re working in LTC you can learn so much more because you work with people who have very complex health issues. LTC is an amazing opportunity for a health care worker, and I really admire people who choose it as a career."

Bojan intends to volunteer at the Rekai Centres again, once he has completed a final assignment for his masters in nursing course. In the middle of a pandemic, something as normal as doing a final assignment seems strange, but for health care workers, there’s no slowing down. "We can't just think of ourselves. We are here to help others and we are in all this together."