Night lights, guardians of dignity until the last breath

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In the harsh light of the corridor which contrasts with the half-light enveloping the Château des Novalles, the seconds hand dictates a time suspended to the rhythm of the bells which shake the smartphone of the two night lights. “Did you call me?” This nocturnal and silent dance takes the two caregivers from one floor to another to meet the needs of the residents of the Blonaysan EMS. A pressing desire. Bedding to change. Pain to relieve. Between two stairs, Monique Piaget confides having thirty years of vigil behind her, including seven in the establishment of the Vaud Riviera. “I like working at night. It’s calmer, we are protected from the stress of the day. We take the time to listen to the residents and, by force, we know all their little habits, the one who likes to have a blanket on his feet, the one who has the duvet up to his neck, smiles the nurse assistant. I appreciate these links. Besides, I’m not made for teamwork, I have a bit of a wild side. ”

Alongside the young sixty-year-old Milijada Obradovic, whom everyone, by choice or convenience, calls Miki, is celebrating her twentieth anniversary this year within the Vaud institution. Favoring night work for family reasons for seven years, the care assistant is one of the few to take care of it full time. More and more, EMS limit this activity to 90%, as the task is trying. “Imagine a New Years day when you had a party. For us, it’s like that every day, it’s like a permanent hangover, ”says the Vaudoise of Serbian origin in her singing accent.

Apart from two tours carried out as a duo in the early evening and then at dawn, the two night guards take turns intervening before reaching their drop-off point, the dining room. On the deserted tables, freshly cut tulips bode the hope of a milder spring. On this Monday at the end of January, the night is calm, “pleasant”, far from the horror nights experienced at the end of the year.

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A catastrophic end of the year

Because in December, hell was invited to the path to Paradise 1. A persistent cough, the red eyes of a resident and a diagnosis confirm the suspicion of a coronavirus infection. The immediate quarantine of the first two infected residents will not be enough to prevent the virus from spreading “like wildfire”. In the head of the director of the institution, the question is still circling. How did the virus get into the EMS? Last March, the castle locked its doors the week before the Federal Council’s announcements. The miracle had then taken place, the establishment had been spared by the pandemic. So what happened at the end of the year? “Despite all the precautions taken, we are facing an evil that cannot be controlled. The feeling of helplessness is terrible ”, sighs the newly promoted director, Roberto D’Amario, still affected by this“ upsetting ”period. At all levels of the hierarchy, it is impossible to shake off a feeling of “immense guilt”. “To know that the residents have sacrificed a lot to be protected from the virus, that they have had fewer outings, fewer visits, less social life and that they have all the same been infected, it is extremely difficult to live with », Breathes Monique.

In mid-December, the Château des Novalles listed 44 positive cases out of the 51 residents that the institution had at that time. Each resident is confined to their room, making the task of caregivers more complex, and in addition to their masks, they must equip themselves with gowns, glasses and gloves to provide their care. “When you help a resident to go to the bathroom and she coughs on your hair, you may be protected as much as possible, you can not do anything”, says Miki, still affected to have also been infected while she would have liked so much to “accompany her patients” through this turmoil.

About twenty deaths in less than a month

As the quarantines multiply among the staff, the situation becomes more precarious for the spared employees, who lengthen their hours to fill the gaps and direct the reinforcements mobilized to come to relieve the teams. “Logistical level, we could no longer follow, specifies Monique. We have never seen the cupboards so empty, we had no more sheets, no more duvets, no more pillows. It was a very complicated period because the whole chain was affected. ” Quickly, the three or four oxygen devices available to the establishment are no longer sufficient, the EMS is forced to call on other institutions in the region, and even Neuchâtel.

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During this period, the contours of the days fade for the caregivers, leaving only room for the anguish of the night to come and the fear of a new life that will fly away. “It was an ordeal, I’ve never worked like that,” says the assistant nurse, who saw the Covid-19 take away many long-time residents with whom bonds of friendship had been forged. You never knew if the patients were going to spend the night, it was extremely scary. ” Most of the residents having specified in their advance directives that they did not wish to be hospitalized, the deaths were therefore linked to the Château des Novalles. The pages of the book of memories have darkened twenty times in less than a month. “A death marks us and follows us when we get home. They are human beings and, over time, it is as if they were part of our own family, ”recounts Miki, interrupted by the ringing of her smartphone. While the care assistant goes to a resident’s bedside, Monique continues: “When they were able to come out of quarantine and resume meals in the dining room, the residents saw all these empty tables, it was a great shock. ”

Absorb the anger of loved ones

Apart from the sadness of these departures precipitated by the pandemic, the residents generally reacted well to the situation, unlike some relatives. Nourished by a feeling of injustice, a handful of families have “taken up their pen” to pour out their aggressiveness with virulence, going so far as to accuse the institution of mistreatment. “The sensitivity of all the teams has been hurt. It must be said that the end-of-year holiday period is particularly sensitive, ”tempers the director of the EMS, hastening to point out that a majority of relatives have expressed their gratitude for the exceptional commitment of the nursing staff.

Back in the cozy living room which serves as their rest room, Monique hands two plums to Miki. “The resident has put them aside for you, she knows you appreciate them.” Miki smiles, giving her a knowing look and continues by recounting, moved, the touching word from another resident thanking them for being “her guardian angels”. While the bells seem to be silent for a few hours, the two nocturnal sentries remain attentive to the slightest noise. In the depths of the night, both confide in wanting to be vaccinated. Miki will not however be eligible initially, excluded from the priority group since she contracted the disease. Among nursing staff, unlike other medico-social establishments, adherence to the vaccine here is strong. This enthusiasm is shared by the residents, most of whom wish to be vaccinated. “We must not get the wrong message. The vaccine will not prevent us from remaining vigilant in order to avoid indirect contaminations. But this will make it possible to bring life back to the establishment, to finally remove the mask and facilitate contact with the residents, who are currently struggling to understand us and even to recognize us ”, rejoices the new head nurse, Eduardo. Domingos, arrived at Novalles at the end of the “acute phase”.

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The empty beds crisis

At 5 a.m., the guardians of the dignity of the elderly begin to tour the rooms in order to change the diapers or bedding that require it. In this labyrinth of corridors parade the unnamed rooms hanging from the doors, left empty since the catastrophic month of December. Particularly virulent in eastern Vaud, the second wave created a vacancy of 170 beds, compared to 20 to 30 in ordinary situations. “We are witnessing a complete reversal of the model. From now on, it is up to us to convince of the merits of EMS, that’s the whole paradox ”, analyzes Roberto D’Amario.

If the current situation should allow thinking about a concept of single rooms, it also offers the teams a slightly slower pace than usual. “Currently, we have the same staff for a quarter fewer residents. This will allow employees to recover their overtime, take vacations and rest, ”said head nurse Eduardo Domingos.

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As Miki and Monique arrive at the end of their tour, Georgette, dressed in an impressive fur coat, awaits them firmly. At 87 years old, this “talkative, as you will have noticed”, does not miss an opportunity to underline the “wonderful work” of the night lights. “Looks like they’ve already been through everything we’re going through. They anticipate our needs, that’s great. But they should do something else in life, it’s not always fun old folks, we have our moods. You have to know how to be nice, smile a little or say something stupid that makes them laugh, ”slips playfully this great-grandmother, obviously used to entertaining the gallery.

While Miki and Monique have already left to transmit their report to the day shifts, a caregiver gives them a “good night” on the fly. At dawn, the two caregivers disappear. It is 7 am.