Meet the Vigi Squad: United for a tough mission, they ended up as heroes

Some Members of the Vigi Squad. (Front): Leslie Maynard and Neda Paynter. (Back): Sara Ward, Alec Cerantola, Jonathan Senatus, Emilie Loranger, Inna Kalman, Elisabeth Laughrea
Some Members of the Vigi Squad. (Front): Leslie Maynard and Neda Paynter. (Back): Sara Ward, Alec Cerantola, Jonathan Senatus, Emilie Loranger, Inna Kalman, Elisabeth Laughrea

When Jonathan Senatus received an urgent request to deploy to a long-term care centre, the Nurse Clinician from the Jewish General Hospital didn’t hesitate for a second. Mr. Senatus had always been drawn to humanitarian work, and this assignment fit the bill.

“There were people in acute need, right in Montreal,” the Emergency Department nurse says. “I wanted to be there.”

Mr. Senatus was among a group of healthcare workers from CIUSSS West-Central Montreal who headed in mid-April to Vigi Mont-Royal, a private seniors’ residence in our area that was struggling with a major outbreak of COVID-19. Over a five-week period, Mr. Senatus and about 20 colleagues worked under strenuous conditions to help contain the virus and restore dignity to residents at the site.

The severe COVID-19 outbreak at Vigi Mont-Royal made headlines in Montreal. But behind the headlines and away from the spotlight, CIUSSS staff like Mr. Senatus quietly devoted themselves to making the situation right again, working in an afflicted residence at the height of the pandemic.

The group became so close that they gave themselves a nickname: The Vigi Squad.

“This squad is made up of heroes,” says Isabelle Caron, Associate Nursing Director of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal. “They were deployed in a difficult context. They cared for vulnerable, elderly people during a crisis.”

Their assignment was daunting. When Clinical Nurse Consultant Elisabeth Laughrea arrived at Vigi Mont-Royal on April 18, infections had spread to residents and staff, materials were in short supply, and a “chaotic” mood prevailed. “It was dramatic,” says Ms. Laughrea, who is with Long-Term Care.

Reinforcements from the CIUSSS soon began to arrive, like a combat team from various units being assembled for a special assignment. There were nurses from Psychiatry and Neonatal Intensive Care, dieticians, occupational therapists, social workers and an orderly. Most came from the JGH, but others came from CLSCs and family medicine clinics.

They quickly began tending to residents and bringing order to the site, ignoring the long hours, the stress, the cumbersome protective gear, and the high demands of the job.

“What impressed me about the group is that instead of concentrating on the chaos or complaining about what wasn’t working, they put all their energy into responding to the needs of residents, and seeing the positive side through it all,” Ms. Laughrea says.

Nurse Clinicians Marylène Hétu (left) and Scholastica Waters (right) worked in tandem to help give dignity to the residents at Vigi Mont-Royal
Nurse Clinicians Marylène Hétu (left) and Scholastica Waters (right) worked in tandem to help give dignity to the residents at Vigi Mont-Royal

Besides administering the basics of health care, they brought a human touch that had been impossible in the midst of the crisis. They held residents’ hands, brushed their hair, and sat with them to talk. One team, made up of Nurse Clinicians Marylène Hétu and Scholastica Waters, bought nail polish and applied it to some residents’ fingernails.

The atmosphere at the Town of Mount Royal site fueled the sense of being on a humanitarian assignment. Cold zones were set up under tents on the grounds outside. The CIUSSS team worked alongside Canadian Armed Forces, the Institut de Cardiologie de Montréal, and the Canadian Red Cross.

By the time the mission wrapped up in mid-May, members of the squad felt they had fulfilled a duty.

“It’s an experience I’ll always remember,” says Ms. Hétu, who normally works in the JGH Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. At first, she and Ms. Waters were looking after 40 to 50 residents at a time. By the end of their stint at Vigi Mont-Royal, however, the situation had stabilized.

“I came out of it stronger. One nurse said that despite the sadness that the coronavirus brought, it united us all and gave us strength and solidarity as a team. I agree. When you’re united, you can accomplish beautiful things.”

The Vigi Squad also felt the satisfaction of seeing formerly ailing residents up and walking again. In his last week at the care home, Mr. Senatus saw an elderly woman in the hallway, moving along on her walker. An orderly was just behind her with a wheelchair, in case the resident needed to sit down. At the sight of Mr. Senatus, the resident smiled and said hello. She had been infected with the coronavirus, and recovered. She was 101 years old.

“I said to myself that if a 101-year-old could get through this and recover, we accomplished something,” Mr. Senatus says.

A few days after his comments, he and several other members of the Vigi Squad deployed to Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre. They prepared to tackle another mission.

“I feel we can help again,” Mr. Senatus says.

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