“I’d break down in tears as soon as I got home”: Why this nurse left the profession for good
Denise Mackie, a 49-year-old nurse at a long-term care home in Oshawa, thought she’d retire from nursing when she was 59, in 2031. Then came the pandemic, and stress and burnout, and she ended up leaving her job in February. Here’s how she came to that decision
–As told to Andrea Yu
“I graduated university with a degree in psychology in 1994. When I left school, I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I wanted to help people. One of my best friends was in nursing at the time, so I decided to follow her lead. I went to nursing school, and after I graduated, my mother-in-law mentioned that her best friend, the manager of a nursing home in Whitby, was looking for a part-time nurse. I started working there in 1998.
“I loved the long-term care environment. In a hospital, you’re so busy that you don’t have time to talk to your patients. In long-term care, you get to develop a relationship with the residents over months and years. After a few years, in 2001, I got a job a non-profit home in Oshawa run by the Regional Municipality of Durham.
“Things were great at the home when I first started working there. For each 50-resident unit, there’s one registered nurse—that was me—overseeing two registered practical nurses and five or six personal support workers. We had a lot of camaraderie. The residents’ families were really involved, and it always felt good to go to work. On our unit, the staff brought in house plants and maintained a beautiful garden on the patio to make things feel more homey for the residents. We would have potlucks with staff, and sometimes we’d order Chinese takeout or Swiss Chalet with the residents. We’d dress up in costumes on Halloween and we’d help the residents dress up too.
“I always had the radio on at the nursing station. We played songs from the ’50s through now. I’d come out and dance with the residents. One resident had dementia and was non-verbal. But she loved music and dancing. Even with her dementia, she knew all the songs from the ’50s and ’60s, and she’d sing along. The residents were also quite attentive. You’d go away for vacation, and they’d ask how your trip was when you got back. Once, when I wasn’t there, a gentleman would yell my name down the hall. The other staff would tell him that I was off that day and he’d huff. It felt like these residents were part of my family.
“In 2016, I started working in the secured unit, which is reserved for residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Often, these residents get scared because they don’t understand what staff are doing, even though we’re trying to help them. As a result, I sustained multiple injuries from residents. I would often come home with bruises on my body. I was kicked, choked, punched and spat at. One time, a resident tried to strangle me with a gown. On occasion, we had to phone the police because we couldn’t get a resident to settle down.
“That same year, my husband, Andrew, and I started a side business. He works as an industrial electrician, but he’s always loved buying and selling vintage wares. We opened an online auction house where we’d consign items and run auctions once a month, selling things like sports cards, comics, coins, vintage ads, toys, stamps, tools and books. We soon opened a shop in Lindsay, where we’d photograph the items prior to auction and customers could come in and view auction items a few days before the sale. I worked on the auction business every other weekend. We took a hit in our first couple of sales. But after that, we broke even and, slowly, grew our buyers and consigners. Soon, we were selling between 600 and 700 items at each auction. Our long-term plan was that I’d continue working until 2031, when I was 65, since I had a great pension plan. My husband, meanwhile, would eventually quit his job and work full-time with the auction business after we’d built it up.
“When Covid hit, we were terrified. I was worried about bringing the virus home. I live in Bethany, a small village 30 minutes east of Oshawa, with Andrew, my two sons and my stepson. My youngest is 18 and the two oldest are 20. After each shift, I would strip down when I walked in the door and put everything in the wash. I wore a bandana over my hair for extra protection.
“I was just as worried about bringing the virus to work and infecting our residents and my co-workers. Our sister facility got hit hard by Covid during the first wave. We watched our co-workers struggle—they were working short because staff were calling in sick or staying home because they were afraid. They almost ran out of PPE, and we had to lend them some from our stock. Before Covid, some staff worked between the two facilities, but that ended during the pandemic. We weren’t even permitted to talk to staff from the other home in the parking lot.
“Thankfully, the facility where I worked didn’t get hit in the first wave. Our staff were diligent. We screened everybody on the way in and did temperature checks. We did Covid swabs twice weekly. We didn’t allow anyone who didn’t live or work in the home to enter the building. That kept us safe, but it affected our work. Our unit’s fax machine and printer broke soon after Covid hit, and we couldn’t allow a repair person to come in. So I had to run to another unit every time I needed something printed or faxed. We used to have volunteers come in to play piano, guitar and sing, which the residents enjoyed, but that wasn’t allowed anymore either.
“The residents grew bored and restless. They became more aggressive. Their cognitive abilities deteriorated. They needed more help with feeding. Their mobility declined. It was excruciating to watch. They didn’t understand what was going on and why their families weren’t visiting them. We’d try to explain what was happening with the pandemic, but they wouldn’t remember the next day, or even five minutes later. When we started doing Zoom calls a few weeks into Covid, some residents were happy to see their families again, but others didn’t handle it so well. They were confused. They’d get anxious or weepy about not being able to touch and hug their family members.
“Mandates were constantly changing throughout Covid, especially in the beginning, and it was hard to keep up. I managed everyone in my unit, and I was also in charge of updating maintenance, kitchen and cleaning staff on changing mandates. Some days, I’d go to work in the morning, hear about a new mandate, implement it, then a few hours later it would change again. For example, at first, the PPE requirement was just to wear masks, then it changed to wearing a face shield at all times. At first we checked residents’ temperatures once a day, then twice a day. We’d have daily meetings with the management team to go over new updates and policies. I understand why they were necessary, but they took even more time out of my day. I was skipping all my breaks and lunches and I still couldn’t get everything done. I’d be clocking in a few hours of unpaid overtime each week. I was skipping meals and lost 15 pounds. And my energy levels were dropping big time. I would come home from work, and I couldn’t function. I’d just zone out on the couch and watch TV for hours. My husband told me I wasn’t myself, and stepped up to take over the cooking, cleaning and shopping for the house. I wasn’t there for my boys. My sleep suffered. I was sleeping only two hours a night because I was so stressed out about work.
“During the day, I had to be strong for my staff and support—they were also afraid, stressed, working short-staffed and worried about their families and residents. I tried to put on a brave face. But once I got in my car, I cranked the tunes and drove as slowly as I could so I could decompress. Once I got home, I was short with my two teenage sons and argued with my family about petty things. I felt like I was constantly in fight-or-flight mode. About three times a week, I’d break down in tears as soon as I got home. One day, in August of 2020, I was driving to work and realized I just couldn’t do it anymore. So I pulled over, called in sick and just drove around for hours. I did that a few times that month. I started seeing a counsellor once a week through our employee assistance program. Those appointments helped me hash out my issues and anxiety. I learned that there are certain things I can’t control. I can’t constantly worry about what will happen in the future.
“In October, I took a six-week stress leave and went on EI. I had a lot of time to myself. I went for long walks with my dog along the trails near our house. I continued seeing my counsellor. It was a nice break, but I felt guilty for taking time off. I was worried about my staff and the residents. During that time, my husband and I talked about what it would look like if I quit my job. We thought that I could go full-time with the auction business. But I wasn’t ready to leave yet.
“When my six weeks were up, I was apprehensive about returning to work. I wasn’t sure if I could cope with whatever came at me next. By this point, families were allowed to come in and see their relatives, which I thought would help. But the complaints started immediately Family members said their parents’ hair was too long or their eyebrows were too bushy. I understood their concern, and that they were stressed. They hadn’t been allowed to see their family members for six months. But I’m not an aesthetician. I’m a nurse. I wanted to say to them, ‘Well, they’re alive and we don’t have Covid here.’ At the same time, community support was starting to level off as well. No more people dropping off meals, no more drive-by honkings. All that was left were the complaints: ‘You’re doing this wrong,’ or, ‘What are you doing about this?’ One family member brought in hair dye and asked us if we could colour the resident’s hair. That wasn’t part of our job, but we did it because we wanted the resident to feel good. After a few weeks of all this griping, I felt defeated. I’d spent all this time keeping Covid out, keeping residents healthy and alive, and people were still complaining. I understand how difficult it was for them. They hadn’t seen their loved ones in months and couldn’t physically touch them. There was very little they could do too.
“I soon realized that nothing was going to change, and the stress was ruining my life. So, in February of 2021, 10 years before I planned to retire from nursing, I handed in my resignation. It was a difficult decision. I was giving up a $96,000 salary, plus a great pension and benefits. Thankfully, I’m able to go on my husband’s benefits plan now. I ended up cashing in part of my pension, which helped. We used it to pay for our sons’ tuitions—my youngest is studying police foundations at Algonquin College and my oldest is at Niagara College for horticulture.
“Now I spend six to seven days a week at our auction shop. I’m photographing items, listing them online and helping customers who come in to view the items. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. But some days I’m lonely. Some days I have too much time to think. I miss nursing. I miss the action and the relationships I had with residents. I still keep in touch with the staff via Facebook messenger. They let me know when one of the residents passes away.
“I sometimes feel guilty for leaving. It hit me full-force when my old facility got hit with Covid during the third wave in April. Several residents died. These days, every long-term care home in my area has signs out front asking for staff. When I drive by those signs, I think about going back. I could walk into any home and get a job on the spot because they’re so desperate for staff. But I can’t do it. I realized how much I was giving to other people, and how much that took away from myself and my family. Even now, I’m still getting calls from my old unit with questions about work stuff.
“My mental and physical health are so much better these days. My hair and nails are growing thicker. My blood pressure is down. I’ve been on medication for hypertension for at least a decade but the doctor said I might be able to go off of it soon. And I have a much better relationship with my boys now. I’m able to laugh and joke with them. We talk more and we’re open with each other. I started gardening for the first time this summer—I grew peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins. I’m reading more in my free time. And I started taking a medical transcription certificate program at Durham College. I’m in classes about 20 hours a week. It’s something I can do remotely, so the idea is that I’ll do medical transcription when it’s slow in the shop. I’ll finish with the program in the spring next year.
“Some days, I seriously think, ‘Yes, I’m going to go back to nursing.’ And then there are other days when I just don’t know if I have it in me anymore.”