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Elizebell Rooplall proudly acknowledges she's seen as "a motherly figure" in the Medical Surgical/Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit (MSNICU) at Toronto Western Hospital (TWH).
It's not just about having been a registered nurse for more than 30 years. It's also about bringing in her own coffee maker to brew cups for colleagues each day, organizing elaborate holiday decorations and handing out stickers to colleagues to celebrate Valentine's Day, Halloween and Christmas.
So, when COVID-19 hit, Elizebell saw it as her responsibility to offer the team reassurance, a pick-me-up.
"It brought back a lot of memories of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003," says Elizebell, who at that time had children under age 10. "I remembered coming to work and new and even conflicting information was coming out daily about the SARS virus.
"I remembered seeing and feeling the fear in everyone. The fear of getting infected, the fear of taking the virus home and the fear of dying.
"I saw the same scenarios being repeated with COVID-19."
Elizebell says it was that "fear of the unknown" among her and her colleagues that was the motivating force behind a photo project in the MSNICU. Using a new phone she bought at the outset of the pandemic, she put it in portrait mode and asked her teammates to pose for a photo.
"I wanted to do something to boost morale," Elizebell recalls. "The idea was to bring everybody together – the entire team, all jobs, all professions – as a symbol that we're all in this together."
The result, which took a few weeks to put together, is portraits of more than 200 members of the MSNICU team shot against a dark background that represents the unknown and dread they were all feeling. The photos are in a big frame, which hangs on the wall near the Nursing Station, with the title "Our Team Behind the Mask." All faces are masked but smiles shine out in the eyes of most.
Elizebell admits to being "very surprised and very proud" of the response colleagues had to the project.
"Stuff like this makes everyone feel fulfilled," one of her colleagues, Shinlee Reyes, wrote in a message Elizebell keeps on her phone. "I know some people don't know how hard it is for us to work during this pandemic but this portrait will be a reminder that during hard times, we still have each other.
"Again, thank you so much for the portrait."
Nearly two years later, Elizebell says a number of colleagues from the framed portraits have left the ICU and some have left UHN. Some have retired or are out of healthcare. Others took work closer to home or went to other provinces.
"The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone," she says. "But the portraits remain as a reminder of the family we will always be."
Just as in so many areas across UHN, the pandemic has affected many of the ICU staff and their family personally. Elizebell and those close to her are no exception. She remains fearful of her elderly mother contracting COVID, just as her aunt did in December 2020, dying a few days later.
"My mother couldn't visit her while she was sick or attend her funeral," Elizebell says. "I remember receiving the Zoom call about my aunt passing away all alone. It was devastating for everyone."
Even though COVID-19 restrictions are now lifting, Elizebell says "the psychological impact" the pandemic has had on everyone will linger. But she credits the camaraderie within her team for getting her through it, and is thankful every time she looks at the framed portraits that she was able to do something to thank them.
"It gives me great pride to see our entire team recognized," she says. "It did give us a morale boost as I'd hoped, but I don't think any of us ever thought that this pandemic would still be here two years later.
"Looking at the portraits every day reminds us how close-knit and resilient we are as individuals, and as members of our ICU family."
Previous essays in our
The Pulse of UHN series: