In February 2020, the first wave of COVID-19 reality washed into my town. I instantly quit my hospital job and never looked back. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
One year ago today, my small Canadian town made national headlines when selected to house passengers returning from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Although the COVID-19 outbreak was gaining traction worldwide, there were only a handful of cases documented within Canada. The latest news was the out-of-control infection rates aboard the cruise ship, by this time docked in Japan and boasting 355 infections. Now, these travellers were being evacuated to my town for a 14-day quarantine.
At the time, I worked at the local hospital as a switchboard operator, after leaving the emergency department several months before. My new role gave me plenty of time to write during the day and work the phone lines in the evening. I planned to leave in June 2020 and dive into writing full-time.
Like every other person on the planet in 2020, my plans changed. The realization that this mysterious infection might be brought into my workplace within days dawned on me slowly. The realization of what I wanted to do about it came all at once.
The same night that the hospital's CEO confirmed our role in the quarantine plan, I wrote my resignation letter. I didn’t write it out of fear. I wrote it out of exhaustion from working within a broken system. It seemed inevitable that things were about to take a very ugly and dark turn. At best, there would be hysterical patients and endless red tape. At worst, the hospital would burn through the personal protective equipment and body bags stored in its pandemic warehouse. Either way, I didn’t want to be involved.
Before this, I spent more than 15 years working at all kinds of jobs within the medical field. I worked for family doctors and specialists, in a pharmacy, as a medical transcriptionist, as a clerk on countless floors, as a switchboard operator, and more. I can tell you from my experience that the healthcare system is broken. But after working in multiple hospitals, I also knew I was working in a particularly toxic one. Don’t get me wrong — the medical care is top-notch. But I was done with the swiss-cheese training, the tone-deaf administration, the subtle and blatant racism, among other systemic issues.
I also knew that after years of working with the public, my well of tolerance had run dry. This became clear one evening around this time when an irate patient unleashed a verbal tirade over the phone. After years of handling identical situations professionally, I responded in kind. It was a first and, in that moment, I determined it would be a last. My patience for the bullying, threats, and general nastiness that frontline workers experience every single day had dried up. I was not a nurse with a calling. I was not a physician with a cure. I was simply a worn-out front line worker watching a tsunami coming. I was a cog in a broken machine — blessedly replaceable.
And so I left. I was at the hospital just long enough to read from my desk about the arrival of 129 passengers to a local conference center. I read the urgent memos blasted out by hospital administrators and Infection Control in case any of the travellers needed to be transported to our hospital during their quarantine. I even chatted with the intensivist appointed as the medical director for the unfolding crisis. “We’re all in the red zone now,” he quipped.
A few weeks ago, at the dog park, I met the woman who replaced me at the hospital. She told me about the COVID-19 unit a few steps away from my old department. I heard about the recent surge in admissions and the rising death toll linked to a long-term care outbreak. About the screaming family members, separated and desperate to see their loved ones. About the constant protocol changes and plummeting staff morale.
I could have stayed. For a few short months, I’d be hailed as a healthcare hero. I could add a #FrontlineStrong filter to my Facebook page. And as a medical writer, I could have an inside view of a once-in-a-lifetime event. But, as I suspected a year ago, none of it would be worth the mental health toll of facing a crisis within an already crisis-ridden system. Instead, I drove home from the dog park with bottomless gratitude for my current circumstances — holed up in isolation, writing about a pandemic from the outside.
Lauren McGill is a medical writer in Ontario, Canada. She writes about mental health, emergency medicine, and patient experiences. Find her work in Reader’s Digest, The Walrus, and international medical journals.