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Illustration of five women wearing medical masks and holding flags. Illustration by Paru Ramesh
With International Women’s Day taking place during the pandemic, we asked some of our HHS COVID heroes to share their thoughts about providing care during the past year and celebrating women’s achievements.
March 8, 2021

International Women’s Day during a pandemic: “I have a level of resilience I didn’t know I had.”

This International Women’s Day (IWD), we are celebrating all the women who work at Hamilton Health Sciences. The pandemic hit Hamilton just after IWD last year, so it’s been a full year of challenges and change for everyone. When we asked these frontline heroes what they learned about themselves this year, several common themes emerged: the importance of teamwork, the need for compassion, and a deep capacity for resilience.

Dr. Kajenny Srivaratharajah
General Internist, COVID unit, Hamilton General Site

A woman wearing a hospital mask stands in front of a clinical whiteboardWhat have you learned about yourself this past year through working on the COVID unit/ COVID outbreak?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about challenges, both big and small, to all aspects of our lives. However, this past year has also provided an opportunity for self-reflection on the things that matter most to us. During my work on the COVID unit, I acknowledged my fear of uncertainty, the impact of social isolation on both patients and staff alike, and the value of human connection in health care. I actively sought out ways to foster that connection with my patients and colleagues while behind a mask, shield, and gown. Most importantly, I learned and witnessed my own individual and larger collective resilience amongst health care workers on the COVID unit at Hamilton General Hospital.

How do you seek out and celebrate women’s achievement in any aspect of your life?

I hope to inspire, support and celebrate women’s achievement in medicine.

I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by exemplary female peers and mentors in both my personal and professional life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their guidance and support. In turn, through my academic interest and work on gender equality in medicine and cardiovascular care, and through formal and informal mentorship of female physicians in training, I hope to inspire, support, and celebrate women’s achievement in medicine.

Sarah Ruggiero
Physiotherapist, 5-West COVID Unit, Hamilton General Hospital

A woman wearing a hospital mask and surgical capWhat have you learned about yourself this past year through working on the COVID unit/ COVID outbreak?

Something that I’ve learned about myself working on the COVID unit is that I have a level of resilience I didn’t know I had. This year has been one that was extremely difficult both professionally and personally. Between working with patients with dementia thinking they’ve been abandoned by their families and watching patients die alone, isolating myself from my kids, and missing out on lots of family functions, it’s definitely been a trying time.

I’m stronger than I thought.

There have been many times that I’ve felt ready to give up and that I don’t have any more in me, but then another gear within me kicks in and I just keep on going and doing what needs to be done to be a good health care provider, coworker, wife, and mom. I’ve never been tested like this before in my life and I realize now that I’m stronger than I thought and I can do more than I ever thought possible.

How do you seek out and celebrate women’s achievement in any aspect of your life?

When it comes to how I celebrate women’s achievements, as a mom to two little girls, I celebrate being a woman in small ways every day with them. Be it through their play, books we read, or simply talking about their day, I try to foster in them a sense of pride in being female. But not just being female, being a strong, confident female. I have an important role to play in being a good role model for them and showing them what a woman can accomplish, but also in raising them to be confident women who will achieve great things. In turn, they are helping me to reflect on what it means to be a woman and how proud I am of everything I have done and will do in the future.

Charmaine Martin Gaspar
Nurse Practitioner, Restorative Rehabilitation Unit, St. Peter’s Hospital

Two women pose together wearing medical masks. One woman is using a wheelchair.

Charmaine Martin-Gaspar (right) with patient Vicki Slade

What have you learned about yourself this past year through working on the COVID unit/ COVID outbreak?

I learned that I had to stay focused on the reason I went into nursing – the patient. With all of the panic, news updates, social media mayhem, lockdowns, etc., one can lose track of the need to focus on what we do know about the virus and what is important.

When we entered nursing as a profession, there were no guarantees that there would not be hard, sad, heart-wrenching, and scary days. But amongst all of those days, there is the hope and wonder that we bring to patients and their families knowing that we are making an amazing difference in their lives. We are the rock that the patient holds on to when they are frightened and scared. With fear comes all sort of mixed emotions from our patients and their families. Some of them are grateful, frightened, angry, or anxious. These various emotions can be played out in both positive and sometimes less constructive ways. As nurses, we need to support one another and examine the reasons for these responses. If we support one another, we can do anything.

How do you seek out and celebrate women’s achievement in any aspect of your life?

I look to some of the greatest heroes of our past who have lead the way for women to be recognized as leaders. As a nurse, I look to Florence Nightingale who led nurses to the war front to treat those dying of typhoid and cholera. It was the science of nursing which allowed Nightingale to gather data about the causes for the spread of the disease and implement strategies to stop the spread of infection and decrease death rates by two-thirds.

I salute all of the masked, gowned, goggled and gloved “Queens of COVID.”

However, it was the art of nursing, including compassion and caring, which demonstrates the human factor of what nursing is all about. The COVID pandemic provides many parallels to Florence Nightingale’s experiences. Nurses need to use scientific knowledge to provide the safest care we can while minimizing the spread of the virus. But through it all, we cannot stop caring for and supporting others who rely on us for our compassion and empathy. Also, we need to take care of ourselves in order for us to have the emotional and physical strength to be on the frontline of healthcare during a pandemic. I salute all of the masked, gowned, goggled and gloved “Queens of COVID.”

Teresa Makin
Customer Support Services Leader/Nutrition Supervisor, West Lincoln Memorial Hospital

A woman wearing a hospital mask replaces supplies on a shelfWhat have you learned about yourself this past year through working on the COVID unit/COVID outbreak?

COVID has been called the toughest leadership test and I learned that resiliency, the trait we all share through years of working in the health field, would become key to adapting to the unprecedented and ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. Daily morning meetings with Command Centre, where decisions were made and plans put into action, were integral to making huge asks of my team and gave me strength that was rewarded by staff trust and loyalty. They never lost sight of their compassion and empathy for patients, even while facing daunting emotional and physical expectations and workloads.

I have learned to remain calm and to be strong for those around me.

I have learned to remain calm and to be strong for those around me. I started living in the moment, taking one day at a time, one change at a time. I was there to support my staff and colleagues in any way I could. Keeping staff informed, listening to their concerns and hearing what supports I needed to provide, I believe helped calm the fear and anxiety staff had regarding COVID-19. Mostly, we shared a common goal to make West Lincoln Memorial Hospital (WLMH) a safe working environment with a strong priority that patients receive the best care.

How do you seek out and celebrate women’s achievement in any aspect of your life?

The International Women’s Day 2021 theme is #ChooseToChallenge and so many courageous, brave, and inspirational women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 have empowered and enriched my life this past year. As a mother, grandmother, wife, friend, and team leader of an exceptional group of women at WLMH, I celebrate their accomplishments and I acknowledge and recognize their strengths. I believe in being there, ready to provide genuine support and guidance. The more you understand and celebrate a woman’s innate strength, the more you can uplift them to create their own destiny and truly make a difference. I believe women supporting each other is the most nurturing, wonderful, brilliant thing we can do to celebrate our achievements.

Dr. Joanna Dionne
Intensivist/Gastroenterologist, Intensive Care Unit, Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre

A smiling woman with dark curly hair wears a dark grey suitWhat have you learned about yourself this past year through working on the COVID unit/ COVID outbreak?

As a frontline physician in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and COVID-19 unit, and as a scientist, I have learned what is truly important in life. I have grown in each of these roles in the face of the pandemic.

I have had to become resourceful in using technology to bridge the gaps the pandemic has created. Finding ways to honour patients at the end of life with the 3 Wishes Project has allowed us to provide families with pandemic-safe mementos of their loved ones. Our team has facilitated FaceTime sessions with family members so they are able to communicate with their loved ones and allow them the chance to say goodbye. The devastation families have faced in the pandemic is indescribable.

I have learned the vital importance of our work families.

I have learned to prioritize checking in with residents, fellows and colleagues. I consider myself fortunate to have an incredible ICU team of physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, physiotherapists, pharmacists and dietitians to work with and learn from. In the pandemic we spend most of our time at work with our team. By not being able to see my own family, I have learned the vital importance of our work families.

The teamwork during the pandemic has been inspiring. I’m grateful for my wonderful physician ICU colleagues at the Juravinski Hospital who have not only been my mentors and sponsors during this time, they have also become my brothers! We have banded together battling the pandemic, meeting increasing clinical demand, checking in and supporting one another. I have learned to be more resourceful, mindful, and appreciative of strong support systems and the power of teamwork. Teamwork makes the dream work!

How do you seek out and celebrate women’s achievement in any aspect of your life?

I was raised and inspired by strong women growing up in a multigenerational home, including my mother, grandmother and sister who is also a scientist. It is a priority in my life to celebrate and honour strong women. I take opportunities to promote the careers of other female scientists by being a peer mentor and sponsor, and by ensuring that I prioritize collaboration with other female scientists. I always try to showcase the studies being done by excellent women scientists. This includes citing research, and promoting on social media when other female scientists and friends have received funding, completed graduate studies, and have published their work. I also believe it is imperative to become a strong advocate, mentor and sponsor to female scientists and physicians. There is immense power in joining forces! In my roles as sister, aunt and friend, I try to promote, sponsor, celebrate and uplift the next generation.

Claire Davies
Charge Nurse, COVID Unit, Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre

A woman wears a hospital mask and face shieldWhat have you learned about yourself this past year through working on the COVID unit/ COVID outbreak?

I am able to cope with these new changes and challenges as they arise.

I think that everyone would agree that the pandemic has caused significant changes in our lives over this past year. The COVID unit in particular has had to adapt frequently in response to factors such as outbreaks, fluctuating community transmission, and variants of concern. I have learned that although it is easy to resist change, I am able to cope with these new changes and challenges as they arise.

How do you seek out and celebrate women’s achievement in any aspect of your life?

In my personal life, I make an effort to consume media and reading material that reflects the female voice, and I try to support female-run small businesses whenever possible. At the Juravinski, I seek guidance from women who have been able to excel in the healthcare field. I am proud to work with so many talented, courageous, and resilient women!

A collage of six head shots of HHS employees, representing International Women's Day

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