Meaghan Fleck and Pat Cotman
Princess Margaret Cancer Centre registered nurses Meaghan Fleck, (L), and Pat Cotman reflect on the intense change every day of the past year, and how they’ve coped. (Photos: UHN)

Meaghan Fleck pronounced eight deaths in the first two-and-a-half months of her career.

As a 23-year-old registered nurse (RN) who graduated in February 2020, she started working in a long-term care home in Ontario's Kawarthas region. Two weeks later, the home was in COVID-19 outbreak.

"It spread like wildfire," she says. "Every resident in that nursing home got COVID. Thirty people died."

She joined the Autologous Bone Marrow Transplant Inpatient Unit at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in June 2020 after her interest in oncology and an opening on the unit aligned.

"It was almost a relief to leave what felt like a COVID-warzone situation," says Meaghan, commenting on how the Princess Margaret has largely remained COVID-free throughout the pandemic.

"Still, we've been doing this for a year and it doesn't feel like you ever get your feet on the ground. It's a constant frenzy."

Tuesday, April 6 is Oncology Nursing Day, a day to recognize the key role these professionals play in our health system. Every day, oncology nurses make a significant impact on the patients they care for.

Over the past year, nurses at the Princess Margaret have worked tirelessly to provide compassionate and safe care to some of UHN's most vulnerable patients in the middle of a pandemic.  

Today is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the many specialized oncology nurses who do great work on behalf of patients and other health professionals across UHN and beyond.

'Everything was so different'

In the ups and downs of the past year, Meaghan has mastered reflecting and accepting as a way to cope with the rapid-fire change, loss and new challenges that arise daily.

"You can't just suppress those tough moments, because at the end of the day, there's always going to be another patient, another scary situation, another family member who's lost someone, another hand to hold or med to give," she says.

"I need the time to reflect in order to accept what's happened so I can move on. You can't provide the best care without taking the time to acknowledge and truly feel what's happened first."

For veteran RN Pat Cotman, a simple hello and thanks from a patient, and the support of her colleagues has made all the difference.

With 44 years of experience under her belt, she's familiar with change, and knows constant learning is par for the course with nursing. But when the pandemic came, it felt like completely new territory.

"You want to be flexible and adaptable, but when COVID hit it was really challenging" she says. "The switch to virtual care, the sudden and still changing protocols, constant use of PPE, the moving between different clinics at a moment's notice...it almost made me feel insecure at times.

"It was all kind of surreal, because everything was so different."

Pat used to work mostly in the Breast and Melanoma clinics, but put her hand up to work in the COVID Clinic when it first opened in March 2020, assessing cancer patients with possible COVID symptoms and ensuring they still receive the cancer care they need.

'I trust my colleagues, and I lean on them for support'

"In the COVID clinic we came face to face with how hard it was for our patients," Pat says. "In many cases, they were angry or afraid that if they were sent to the COVID clinic they wouldn't be able see their doctor, receive their treatment or get to their appointments on time.

"They were scared of being exposed to COVID and were alone because of visitor restrictions. It was hard to see their fear and vulnerability."

"It's a constant effort on everybody's part to deal with the intensity of change this year," Pat adds. "But we've really pulled together and figured it out. In some ways, working has been my saving grace.

"I trust my colleagues, and I lean on them for support. Very special people come to work here."

Above all, the recognition she receives from patients fuels her onwards. 

"It has always been that way for me," Pat says "It's not really the recognition, just more about feeling content knowing I made a difference in a patient's day.

"Many times, it's the smallest of gestures that carry the biggest impact."  

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