Answering the Call, Supporting their Community: Manitoba Nurses and Healthcare Aides Support Bunibonibee Cree Nation Resident Care During COVID-19 Outbreak

During the height of Manitoba’s second wave of COVID-19, a group of two nurses and six healthcare aides from Bunibonibee Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba travelled 576 kilometres south to Winnipeg. Their mission? To provide ongoing support to 22 of Bunibonibee’s George Colon Memorial Home’s 24 residents who had been transported to Winnipeg for enhanced care and isolation.

“Staff were exhausted and many were ill due to the COVID outbreak; there was a shortage of staff and no replacements were available; there were many different protocols that needed to be followed, and sometimes the information was conflicting,” said Della Mansoff, pandemic co-ordinator and nurse at George Colon Memorial Home in Bunibonibee who oversaw both the evacuation in December 2020 and the eventual return of residents to the community. “Staff were dealing with family members becoming ill, and in some cases, dying due to the virus.”

The residents were joined for their time in Winnipeg by nine healthcare professionals from the community, including registered nurse Janice Vanderstaten, licensed practical nurse Arlene Jobb, and healthcare aides Steve Munroe, Linda Whiteway, Richard Weenusk, Lindsay Beardy, Eva Colon, Jonah Weenusk, and Kelvin Robinson.

That’s where Winnipeg’s Holy Family Home comes in. The personal care home owned and operated by the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate (SSMI) lives by the mission statement, “To Serve is to Love,” and they certainly showed that when they took in the 22 residents and nine healthcare professionals from Bunibonibee.

“We were called to respond to the needs of the time. This presented itself as a way we could help serve,” said Sister Darleane Pelechaty, SSMI Liaison at Holy Family Home. “Helping others is rooted in the mission of the home and the charism of the SSMI.”

At the time, Holy Family Home was responding to its own COVID-19 outbreak, impacting both residents and staff. Having experienced the difficulties of the quickly spreading virus in their facility, Holy Family’s team recognized the additional challenges associated with managing a significant outbreak in a remote community far from many acute care health services. Jumping into action, the team quickly ensured an empty unit at their facility was clean and ready to welcome and provide care to the residents and staff from Bunibonibee.  

“Members of our operations team quickly prepared the vacant unit, trying to ensure there was the needed equipment and supplies for the residents and staff upon their arrival,” said Holy Family Home CEO Tara-Lee Procter. “This required assembling equipment and stocking supplies in anticipation of their arrival.”

Those efforts helped ensure a seamless transition as possible for the residents and healthcare workers in a situation filled with such uncertainty. Chief Richard Hart and council member Howard Grieves Jr., as well as Dr. Allistair Brown, who was the attending physician and offered 24/7 service, also stepped in to help. Combined, the efforts of these dedicated healthcare workers supported the residents of the George Colon Memorial Home in their time of need.

“The healthcare aides that were deployed were all fluent in Cree and were able to be on hand to translate the needs of the residents to the nursing staff and the physician,” noted Mansoff. “Services were offered by every arm of healthcare – I worked closely with Indigenous Services, Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, Shared Health, Perimeter Airlines, and chief and council as there were many moving parts that required adjustment during the stay. We were welcomed by everyone, respected by everyone, and had everything we needed at our fingertips.”

With the residents and healthcare workers away from home over the holiday season, a great effort was made by both Holy Family Home and the Bunibonibee healthcare workers to ensure that there was still Christmas cheer for the residents forced to be so far away from home.

“As a team they pulled together. They used their own money to buy gifts for the residents so they would not miss out on Christmas,” Mansoff said. “Even though food was provided, they bought ‘comfort foods’ for the residents so they would have something familiar to eat.”

While demonstrations of healthcare worker empathy and compassion are numerous throughout the pandemic, the willingness of the Bunibonibee healthcare workers to not only provide ongoing care, but also to travel out of the community at Christmas, to ensure the residents had access to care in their own language, are the kinds of stories that should inspire all during this challenging time.

“Given the challenges and unprecedented times faced over the past year, we all need to care for one another, support one another, and be kind to each other,” concluded Procter.