There are those of us in life who know our path before we take it. While others paths’ choose them – long before they begin to travel the road unknown.
Alea de Castro, a registered nurse in both Ontario and British Columbia, was recently crowned Spark Lifecare’s “Ontario Healthcare Hero”. She was shocked when she discovered she had been nominated for the award. She was even more shocked to learn that she was the winner of $10,000 cash! “I can’t believe I won!” She exclaimed to her proud, equally-ecstatic parents over a Zoom call that evening.
Alea admits that initially she had no interest in attending Nursing School following her high school graduation – despite her parents’ incessant encouragement towards the field of study.
When her late Grandmother (whom, according to Alea, remains the best cook in her Filipino family) was diagnosed with early stages of dementia, she began to care for her daily. As the disease progressed, she continued her caregiving well into the late stages of dementia. Alea realized her calling while assisting her Grandmother and family- all while simultaneously attending Nursing school.
“It was very demanding at times,” she admits about the whole experience. But she is well aware it was the very thing that led her to where she is today in her well-rounded nursing career.
“After graduating Nursing School, I worked on 7 West – General Campus at the Ottawa Hospital for three years. It was a great experience for new nurses to gain practical knowledge, but definitely challenging at times,” Alea admits. After getting her “feet wet” in the industry, she applied for a temporary position – a one year contract in Surgical Daycare. Eventually, the opportunity landed her a permanent position, where she has been working for the last 5 years part time while having a hand in many other healthcare sectors as a registered nurse. “I love it….it is my saving grace. It’s where people ‘retire’.”
What has been your pandemic experience as a nurse?
“Not many people know this – but when the pandemic first hit, many nursing and healthcare positions were forced into mass layoffs. Everything came to a grinding halt. Non-essential procedures and surgeries were cancelled, or put on hold indefinitely,” she states.
Nurses were given the option to be deployed and fulfil nursing duties in other areas and regions as needed. Alea decided to volunteer and work at the very first Covid Assessment Centres from mid March until late May in 2020. “At the Brewer Park Covid Assessment Center, I was prepping the patients prior to their swabbing. Asking questions about any exposures, symptoms etc.”
Alea fulfilled another much-needed role during this time as a “screener” at the front of the hospitals, referred to as “Covid Screening Areas”, at both the Civic and General Campus of the Ottawa Hospital. This was a critical role as her duty was to screen every single person who entered the building for Covid, with a long list of questions. An evolving questionnaire – with results unknown at the time.
She admits in the beginning, there were a lot of challenges. After all, following protocol in times of uncertainty in an attempt to control an infectious deadly disease requires a great deal of communication from top to bottom. It’s a moving target. Every day was filled with new information about the disease, procedures and protocols to follow with diligence; continuous trial and errors for staff to navigate and patients to cope with. Dealing with ever-changing regulations on the daily, and trying to keep the general public informed as mandated – trying to explain to those who were not understanding or privy to the same information as the medical world. It was an exhausting battle at times that many healthcare workers had to face. Alea was prepared to face it everyday.
The hardest part?
“Sometimes I had to turn people away from screening at the front of the hospitals because they did not meet the qualifications….These were extremely difficult and sensitive conversations to have with both fearful and worried families,” Alea confesses.
Following her two months at the Covid Assessment Centres, an opportunity to work at a Long Term Care (LTC) facility in Prince Rupert, Northern B.C. presented itself. So, she immediately jumped on it for a change of pace and scenery. She was there from May until late August before another opportunity to work in Vanderhoof, B.C. at the Rural Hospital Med/Surg Unit popped up for the month of September.
In the beginning, there were zero cases in these western Canadian rural regions. Months after she left, she learned of mass Covid outbreaks, and multiple deaths, including some of the patients she cared for. “It was heartbreaking,” she admits.
“People weren’t even wearing masks in Northern B.C when I first arrived!” she divulges. For Alea, it was a bit of a “break” from the intensity of the pandemic in Ottawa hospitals and clinics, day in and day out.
Alea openly shares her experience and challenges of short staffing in the medical industry, particularly in long term care facilities. “If I didn’t show up, there was literally nobody else.” It’s not easy to replace positions like these in rural regions, especially in a pandemic. So she worked. And worked. And worked some more. Admittedly feeling burnt out towards the end of the year.
“If there was ever a year where I should receive an award, it was this past year!” Alea laughs modestly.
“I worked full time, overtime, all of the time.” She then discloses other nurses somehow worked even more than she did. “I can’t even imagine people that were working triple the amount that I was. Literally working all of the time.”
Having logged so many hours of overtime, it reminded her of just how vulnerable the vulnerable really are, especially in rural communities with less resources than places like Ottawa.
“The people who are the most vulnerable; really need us [nurses] the most.”
Alea says her time caring for LTC patients in B.C really opened her eyes. “We’re essentially they’re family as primary caregivers.”
What touched her the most, was hearing the words “thank you for being here.” She heard this often from appreciative patients and fellow caregivers alike. Her colleagues were beyond kind, she recalls. Alea’s true pandemic experience was receiving kindness everyday, including homemade bannock bread! ….These are the little things that can go a long way in challenging times.
Upon returning to Ottawa, Alea continues to work in Surgical Day Care as well as from home part-time for Ottawa Public Health, handling contact and case management outcalls. She trains fellow staff in asking the appropriate screening questions.
How did you cope with the intensity and long hours in a pandemic?
“I learned to let go of the things that were no longer serving me.”
Alea firmly believes in recharging her own battery. “I care too much about my sanity. If I’m not well, I’ll be no good to anyone else. People will feel that energy at work, including patients.” She genuinely nurtures the fact that it’s ok to have a crappy day once in a while, just not 5 weeks in a row of crappy days. Any time she gets a “Covid” moment, she reminds herself of those who are dealing with more stress – like families, especially parents with young children.
“I really felt the need to do something, which is not an unfamiliar feeling to me….I’ve always tried to give back to the community through our street dance workshops and live shows.”Alea de Castro
Alea firmly believes in work-life balance. Despite her long hours in the medical industry, she has managed to run a very successful Hip-Hop Street Dance Company with her partner called Moov Ottawa. The pandemic, of course, threw a curve ball forcing a shift to virtual events.
Prior to the pandemic, the duo successfully ran in-person community events/shows, practices, and workshops for schools and festivals all over Ontario. “Everything had to stop,” she frowns. “Which is challenging when you feed off the energy of the crowd at events.”
Now, like so many others, the duo has transitioned to offering private and semi private classes / workshops via Zoom.
“I really felt the need to do something, which is not an unfamiliar feeling to me….I’ve always tried to give back to the community through our street dance workshops and live shows.”
What was your give-back during the pandemic?
“We hosted 4 free online dance workshops to fundraise money for the Ottawa Hospital Covid-19 Emergency Fund in April 2020. All the funds went directly to the hospital’s program to assist with the pandemic. The levels were for Beginners/Intro level so no experience was needed. We were even interviewed by both CTV and CBC!”
As if that wasn’t enough, Alea teamed up with “Frontline Feeds” to get food donated to an Ottawa hospital for the staff who had been working so many hours at the beginning of the pandemic. This did not go unnoticed by her colleagues or her nominators for the Spark Lifecare Ontario Healthcare Hero Award!
Proud of her Filipino heritage, Alea remains active in the Filipino community. From past radio show hosting on the Filipino station, to leading Filipino Youth Group activities, to emceeing the Philippine Independence Day Picnic (an annual picnic that is run by the Filipino community at Vincent Massey Park) – Alea feels in her element when giving back to her community.
“I love to give back,” she smiles.
And we salute you, Alea, for giving back. For all of your hard work, we thank you!