Before the pandemic, Nancy Falaise had a busy life running her Montreal salon school and leading workshops aimed at empowering young girls of colour who struggle with their naturally curly hair.
But when Quebec closed non-essential businesses last month, that all came to a screeching halt — leaving Falaise with no income and bills to pay.
So she responded to Premier François Legault’s call for help in the health-care sector, becoming a housekeeper who disinfects rooms in long-term care homes and hospitals.
Some rooms were left vacant by patients who have recovered. But in the long-term care homes, also known as CHSLDs, she was often cleaning rooms where a patient had died of COVID-19.
And yet despite the risk of exposure to the virus, and the grim nature of the work, Falaise needed the income.
“I didn’t have much faith that the government was going to help me in any way, shape or form,” she said.
Even then, she said, once assistance programs were announced, it was clear that Canada’s $2,000 per-month offering wasn’t going to cover her monthly bills.
She was approved for a low-interest, small-business loan through a federal program, but said it won’t be not enough to cover all of her personal and business expenses.
So she took the cleaning job to keep her business afloat, and at the same time, to lend a hand during the pandemic.
“Honestly, it felt good to help,” she said.
Yet in doing so, she was shocked by what she saw inside long-term care homes and medical facilities in the Montreal area.
“It’s a harsh reality to see this is where you are going to end up when you’re old.”
Overwhelmed nurses in tears
She found they were dirty, poorly maintained and outdated to the point that she’s now terrified of one day finding herself living in a CHSLD, or eventually having to drop her father off at one.
“None of these places I went to, I would feel comfortable leaving my father in,” Falaise said.
There was one residence she found worse than the others. She declined to name it, but said she would “come home crying” after every shift there.
She said she cried not just for the elderly residents, but for the nurses who also are in tears themselves because they are all alone on floors with more than a dozen patients in need of attentive, around-the-clock care.
“You know when you look in someone’s eyes and they’re just like, ‘help me?’ I’ve seen that look in both the patients and the people who are working,” Falaise said.
Because of the shortage of nurses and patient attendants, Falaise’s duties were quickly expanded beyond just cleaning rooms. She helped feed patients and distracted them with conversation during uncomfortable care treatments.
“There’s despair in everybody’s faces,” she said.
Nurses, orderlies, maintenance workers and even the administrators appear distraught and exhausted. Managers are struggling to keep workers on the job, unable to solve the unyielding crisis, she said.
Quebec is currently in need of thousands of workers to fill the gaps in its health-care network. As of Thursday, nearly 10,000 absences were recorded — about half due to workers in 14-day quarantine.
It’s important to recognize the horrific conditions seniors are living in, Falaise said, but she also worries for the staff who struggle to keep all those seniors alive in sub-par, under-staffed facilities.
Looking forward to opening her business
Though Falaise had breast cancer eight years ago, her doctor told her that her immune system was up to the task of fending off serious illness.
On Friday, however, she began feeling ill and was tested for COVID-19. She was still waiting on the results on Sunday.
As she waits, she’s off the job yet again and facing an uncertain future as the provincial government plans to reopen the economy.
She’s looking forward to seeing clients again at the Salon Académie Nancy Falaise in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, even if she knows it’ll be challenging to run her business in a world full of strict sanitary requirements.
Falaise said she’s particularly worried about keeping a stock of masks available not just for her and her staff, but her clients as well.
“I need to reopen. I miss my life,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen overnight.”
But even if she’s able to reopen her business, Falaise plans to spend her weekends helping care for the province’s most vulnerable patients.
She said that’s something she’s not willing to give up despite the emotional struggle, risks and challenges she has faced on the job.