CovidCARE Peer Support Program at Halton Healthcare

By Zita Raponi

While no one can change the realities of COVID-19, staff and physicians at Halton Healthcare are finding comfort and strength through a Peer Support Program called CovidCARE. This unique program has helped them connect and build strong support systems so they can face the unique challenges of healthcare, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, 2020, Dr. Jonathan Sam, a Pediatrician at Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital noticed that his co-workers were struggling with all the sudden changes brought about by COVID-19.

“I realized that there was a growing sense of fear and uncertainty amongst staff and physicians – I call it a shadow pandemic – that was even more contagious than the Coronavirus itself,” explained Dr. Sam. “I have a background working with teams to improve their performance in acute care situations through simulation and debriefing so I decided to facilitate some candid discussions with the care teams on the Maternal Child/Pediatrics Unit to see how I could help.”

“Dr.  Sam cut through all the confusion and very effectively eased the fear and anxiety in the room. He patiently answered all our questions, showed us how to sort through the new regulations and protocols, and armed us with some coping and self-care strategies,” explained Tracey Fuller, Clinical Resource Nurse on the Maternal Child Unit, who attended some of these initial sessions. “He also provided us with simple preventive measures on how to protect ourselves, each other and our families.”

“Our healthcare teams were looking for a human connection and Dr. Sam recognized this. He listened to their concerns, talked them through their fears and showed them how they could support each other,” added Dr. Zeba Ansari, Chief of Pediatrics, Halton Healthcare. “Word spread quickly, and soon he was getting invitations to department meetings and team huddles from all corners of the organization. CovidCARE was born in response to this overwhelming need for support.”

The CovidCARE Peer Support Program is a team of seasoned de-briefers with members from all three Halton Healthcare hospitals. Led by Dr. Sam, this team includes Dr. Saroo Sharda, Dr. Meghan Daly, Dr. Deb Marshall and RN Nicole Cemkov, and is supported by Louisa Nedkov, Program Coordinator of Kailo, Halton Healthcare’s Wellness Program. These de-briefers attend department meetings and unit huddles, by invitation, to guide group discussions and help teams build resilience.

“Different teams have different concerns,” explained Dr. Sam. “Healthcare providers and support staff on the frontlines in the ER or ICU may be worried about how to care for patients or contracting the virus while others are still struggling in adapting to their ‘new norm’. Acknowledging teams for the great work they do – especially when they are feeling particularly vulnerable can be very powerful,” explained Dr. Sam. “Some staff also have personal problems at home that makes it very difficult for them to work – and we address those too.”

CovidCARE has made a big difference in terms of boosting morale by spreading positivity, togetherness and resilience across Halton Healthcare. “We cannot change the outcomes or even say that everything will be ok, but we can certainly help people connect, encourage them to share their struggles, and take care of each other –and we can do it all with bravery,” concludes Dr. Sam. “By sharing their experiences, staff realize that they are not alone and, in fact, often, the best people to help them are their colleagues, because they are facing the same challenges.”

The CovidCARE Peer Support Team has facilitated over 70 sessions and has reached over 1,500 clinical and non-clinical staff throughout Halton Healthcare’s hospitals to-date. The program is offered live, live/virtual or entirely virtual. Sessions take from 20 to 60 minutes depending on the needs of the team.

Dr. Sam was recently the recipient of the Halton Healthcare VIP (Values Inspired Performer Award) for his leadership in establishing the CovidCARE Peer Support Program.  The award recognizes individuals who exemplify the Halton Healthcare values of compassion, accountability, and respect.

Zita Raponi works in communications at Halton Healthcare.