During February and March, three St. Joseph’s staff members became a mini mobile medical team in response to an urgent request by the South West LHIN for help in meeting the health care needs of London’s Syrian refugees. As they neared the end of their secondment, the following is how the three described their experience and what it has meant to them.
Every day for the first six weeks, they pushed and pulled a wagon filled to the brim with basic medical supplies along snowy sidewalks to attend to the most immediate health care needs of London’s burgeoning Syrian refugee population.
From their well-equipped, state-of-the-art spaces at St. Joseph’s Health Care London, the team found themselves in large London hotel rooms with no exam beds or patient privacy - even without easy access to running water in one location - and hundreds of Syrians needing care. At one hotel, make-shift exam beds were created by pushing together tables and chairs and a projector screen tipped on its side became a privacy screen.
And yet this dedicated trio describes the experience as meaningful, illuminating and infinitely rewarding.
Nurse practitioner Caitlin Carreau, OR nursing unit secretary Angela Morgan, and admitting clerk Marlo Davidson are St. Joseph’s quick response to an urgent request from the South West LHIN on behalf of London InterCommunity Health Centre (LIHC) to deploy staff members to support health assessments for Syrian refugees. They are part of a partnership of LIHC, the Cross Cultural Learner Centre (CCLC) and Thames Valley Family Health Team addressing the health care needs of the Syrian newcomers that require immediate attention.
Ingenuity, perseverance and heart best define the St. Joseph’s team. In the centre of London, they are on the frontlines in a very different world.
In a normal year, London sees less than 300 refugees arriving in the city, according to the CCLC. Since December 2015, 878 Syrian refugees have flooded into London, most arriving in January and February. Another 800 are expected by the end of the year.
“It’s been a huge learning curve for me,” says Caitlin, who was seconded from her role in Adult Ambulatory Services at Parkwood Institute’s Main Building. “As a nurse practitioner I’m working very independently so have been pushed to the limits and boundaries of my profession. And learning about the culture has been eye opening.”
A tiny clinic space was eventually created within the CCLC for the mini mobile medical team. Some mornings, a crowd is waiting outside the centre for their arrival, referring to Caitlin, as “doctor” despite her best efforts to inform them otherwise. She sees everything from ear and throat infections, skin rashes, pregnancy concerns and dental pain, to infections from surgical procedures performed while the Syrians were living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
Medications that Caitlin prescribes are walked over to a pharmacy for filling (there is no fax machine) and delivered to the Syrians’ hotel rooms that evening or the next day.
Many have chronic illnesses that need to be followed, such as diabetes. Some, like a three-year-old who had heart surgery before coming to Canada, and a two year old with kidney damage, need ongoing care from specialists.
It’s Marlo’s daunting task to create medical charts for the refugees, and Angela’s to find family doctors for each family. Of the 538 Syrians on her initial list, she has so far, with great diligence, found family doctors for 200.
Any medications and doctor reports the Syrians come with are in Arabic, says Marlo. While interpreters are available, “we often rely on hand signals to know what’s wrong. It’s like charades.”
It’s been a daunting, intense and often-overwhelming two months, professionally and personally, the three say, but the highlights are many.
“I’m so glad the children are here and can go to school and play outside,” says Angela, who has revelled in getting to know those families who live in the CCLC’s dorm-like quarters before more permanent housing is found.
The children hang out near the elevators, smiling and proudly practicing their new-found English, which they have been quick to pick up, says Angela. “Every day you can see them feeling safer in their new world. The other day some of the kids were pushing boxes down the hall to pack for their new home and I realized I won’t get to see them anymore.”
There are tears when the three talk about their experiences.
"When you stop to think about all the turmoil these families have been through, essentially having to leave everything behind, it makes you appreciate how fortunate we are," says Marlo. "I'm delighted they're finally stable, safe, happy and able to call Canada home. You can hear the children outside playing in the show shouting "I Love Canada".
A particularly emotional moment for Caitlin was when she asked a mom how old her child was and the mom didn’t know, guessing she was two or three. Many don’t know the birthdates of their children - their records provide only a generic date and year due to the chaos of their lives.
“I have a two year old daughter and her birth was such a special, monumental moment,” says Caitlin. “It’s incredible to me – and says so much – that someone wouldn’t know their child’s birthdate. That made me cry.”
While their work with the Syrians as a medical team will come to an end, all three say the bond they now have with each other, relationships built with partner organizations, and their memories of this time, will endure. Their involvement with the Syrian people, they add, will also continue – one way or another.