Working as a Nurse during the pandemic: A Spotlight

By Nicole Leung, registered nurse in Vancouver, BC studying neuroscience.

For many of us, dealing with masks can be difficult. What happens if you have to work in a hospital, where the masks are an absolute necessity?

Nicole knows exactly what it is like as a hard-of-hearing registered nurse in Vancouver, and she had shared with us her experience:

Can you share what a regular day is like now? 

A “regular” day. Well, it still involves getting up at 5:00 in the morning! But with more time designated to prepare for a possible day in the COVID unit.

As frontline workers, we don’t know what we’re walking into every shift, ever. Every nurse will have their own process but I like to start my day off getting into “the zone.”  Then I leave the house packed.

Everything is double-bagged with an additional plastic bag, just in case. I bring extra hearing aid batteries, but I leave my extra ComPilot cables, audio cables, or hearing aid cleaning tools –I don’t absolutely need them, plus they run the risk of contamination. Trust me, every possible “what if” scenario has crossed my mind before, many times. I constantly need to weigh out the risks and benefits.

As soon as I get into my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), everyone immediately becomes noticeably muffled and unrecognizable.

It takes a few adjustments to get my hearing-aids-glasses-face-shield-scrub-hat-and-mask setup just right before I have to fix it again. Usually, my hearing aids need a little tucking into my mask to stay put.

Patient care is almost the same except… I am more short of breath rebreathing my own carbon dioxide. Phone calls are harder. Building relationships with patients is harder. Accepting that this is temporary for everyone is hard on some days, but sometimes really, really difficult on other days.

Meal breaks are spent resting my brain exhausted from straining to hear, though sometimes I brush past this and enjoy a warm-hearted chat with a colleague or lend an ear to a frustrated colleague.

I usually come home with my voice a little louder from speaking up all day, wrinkles along my cheeks and forehead. My adrenalin levels are coming down while I do laundry for another day of work.

What type of device do you use for hearing? 

I wear two behind-the-ears hearing aids. I use a Phonak ComPilot to connect to devices like my electronic stethoscope. But I recently had to purchase an after-market Bluetooth adapter to make my equipment more contact-less (I used to use a direct audio cord) and I still use my Roger Pen.

I also wanted to mention that my dehumidifier is an important device for optimizing my hearing aids’ functionality!

Has wearing PPE affected the way you work? 

Totally, but it’s not just me, it also affects our patients and their families greatly.   PPE can be so alienating and dehumanizing. Yet it’s not just about the PPE. It’s the virus too.

The PPE and the dangers of COVID-19 have sometimes made me feel inadequate as a nurse. Sure, PPE blocks my ability to fully speech-read, but patients are negatively impacted by not being able to see our faces which usually show friendly smiles. Plus as nurses, we should be physically distancing from patients. So it has been challenging delivering patient-centred care in that sense.

However, PPE has also brought up some important questions professionally. Like, will I be able to hear through the PPE what is being asked during a cardiac arrest? What if I experience a sudden, worsening hearing loss?  It has certainly prompted me to think ahead and I have been afraid to ask, yet eager to find answers, for fear of being discriminated against.  But the call to help others, as a nurse, is louder than anything that stands in my way.  So, there may still be questions I don’t have answers to yet. But the keyword is “yet.”

I hope one day we take our experiences from this mask-and-lack-of-accurate-captioning ordeal and create a better plan for next time.  Certainly times like these have called upon us to listen to those needing help, and we must do this as a community, with all hands on deck. 💪

The face shields manufactured by Tinkerine + Wavefront have made it easier for me to see compared to my goggles, and I feel more protected due to the increased coverage.

How are you coping with the pandemic as a registered nurse?  

By now, things have settled in terms of panic-type of anxiety (half-jokingly). I do need to remind myself that being prepared helps but no matter what, this may be as ready as I’ll ever be. I still try to learn where I can, when I can. Like, I’ve received a little run down of how COVID-positive cardiac arrests are set-up, so that helps.

I keep in touch with my educators. I keep an open-mind and observant eye on what other hard of hearing health professionals are doing. Staying in touch with my nursing colleagues and close friends have been super important as well. We are all in this together.

How are you coping with the pandemic outside of your occupation? What are you doing differently? 

I am trying my best to stay accountable for my well-being! And trying not to kill my new house plants!  Also reading and listening to instrumentals.  And art-ing when my partner and I can.

Otherwise, I am still mentoring healthcare students at the UBC Interprofessional Health Mentors Program on topics about patient-centred care.  Still staying involved in CiTR All Access Pass radio station about all things disability-related. And still working on a study session program focusing on leadership with the International Federation for Hard of Hearing Young People.

Do you have any comments or suggestions for the hard of hearing community? 

I wanted to say to all of those in the deaf and hard of hearing community that there is support available and you are not alone. Don’t stop trying to reach out. Never give up. Remember this is not forever. You are important. Stay healthy, and stay connected!

Another thing!

It is important to acknowledge that PPE, such as a mask and eye protection, poses significant communication barriers to not just deaf and hard of hearing people, but to people who rely on sign language, like non-verbal autistics, and people who rely on body language and tone when understanding a new language.

But masks have presented a huge limitation to deaf and hard of hearing individuals during this pandemic in two major aspects –one that it blocks speech-reading (the visual aspect), and two –the sound becomes muffled (the acoustic aspect).

Speech-reading is not the same as lip-reading. Speech-reading takes tone of voice and facial expression on top of lipreading to help fill-in the verbal gaps missed. Now imagine how hard it is for already deaf and hard of hearing individuals to communicate.

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published on Wavefront Centre for Communication and Accessibility’s website. This has been edited and revised with Nicole’s permission.