From calm to chaos: Nurse comes out of retirement to battle pandemic

By Kimberley Kearsey

Robin Morash has been honing her skills as a nurse manager since 1989. You could say her 30+ years of experience motivating and leading others is what pulled her back to the frontlines in March 2020, almost two years after retiring. An advanced practice nurse in uro-oncology when she decided to embark on a new life chapter in June 2018, Morash didn’t hesitate to call her former employer – The Ottawa Hospital – when she heard it was looking for help amidst an emerging global pandemic. She “was hired within three hours, and was back to work within a week.”

Morash is one of four managers (the other three also came out of retirement) at an Ottawa COVID-19 assessment centre, set up in Brewer Pool and Arena, home to one ice surface and an outdoor ice oval. “I’ve always enjoyed being part of something new,” she says. “We’ve never done this before.”


The mother of two sons, 24 and 26, says she’s been asked a few times how long she thinks she’ll “stick it out” (not by her children though, who are very supportive of her return to work). She isn’t planning to return to retirement any time soon. “I feel a sense of camaraderie and obligation first of all to my team, and then to my community. Unless something becomes untenable or I really can’t do the work anymore, I’ll stick this through until we figure out where we’re headed from an ongoing testing perspective.”

Trading the calm and tranquility of retirement for an extremely busy and sometimes tense COVID-19 assessment centre – filled with mostly fearful people uncertain of their diagnosis and the consequences of a positive test – hasn’t been as difficult as some might think. In fact, Morash says the experience has been one of her “most interesting from the perspective of working with a community of people.”

“We’ve got staff from The Ottawa Hospital…the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario…our Extreme Clean Company (which includes hotel workers, teachers, hairdressers and students caught up in this mess) …physicians…nurses from community health centres…because some of their clinics closed down…(and) people who work for the City of Ottawa and are maintaining our facilities,” she explains. “Having all these different people in a community team…it’s really good and exciting.”

Looking back at the early years of her career, Morash remembers just how important it was for her as a new grad to have a good core team of colleagues. Right out of the gate, the young RN started in a field that might put the confidence of even some seasoned RNs to the test. Her first two years of frontline nursing were at Toronto General Hospital as a staff nurse in surgical oncology. “In those days, many people came in…for palliative treatment,” she recalls, noting only about half were there for curative surgery. “We didn’t see people living long lives in the community. Back then, we all thought cancer was a death sentence.”

The role wasn’t for the faint of heart, but Morash says her closest colleagues – and an exceptional social worker who offered support to patients and staff alike – helped her through the tough days, and supported her as she built the skills and confidence that would carry her through the rest of her career.

Morash always had a dream to work in critical care. She was hired by The Ottawa Hospital to do just that in 1985, but was disappointed when the offer was withdrawn because she didn’t have critical care experience. That disappointment made the move to Ottawa somewhat unpleasant at first, she says, but she was able to get past it quickly. In fact, it led her to vascular surgery, which was a perfect fit. “The nurses…had critical care training because they went up to recovery and recovered their own patients,” she says, and she was able to get the experience she was looking for.

An opportunity in critical care presented itself four years later, and the move may have seemed like a no-brainer, but that’s not what happened. In fact, Morash was convinced to pursue a management role instead. She was 28 and took the lead as a clinical manager in 1989.

For Morash, deciding to pursue nursing back in Grade 13 wasn’t linked to anything particularly altruistic. After conversations with a few professors and family members in the health field, she developed an understanding of the opportunities she would have in nursing. And those opportunities have been diverse through the years. She started in oncology as a new grad, and went back to it in 2007 as manager in a regional oncology program based at The Ottawa Hospital. Five years later, she became an advanced practice nurse with bladder cancer patients, the role she retired from.

“Incident command” is printed on the nametag Morash wears during each 12-hour shift at the COVID-19 assessment centre. She’s still an employee of The Ottawa Hospital, but works at a centre that saw 200 people each day when it first opened, and reached a peak of 1,450 with the second wave of the virus hitting Ottawa hard. One day in early October, “we put through 1,100.”

Compared to the work she’s done throughout her career, “It’s a different kind of challenging,” Morash says. “It’s using the same skill set in a different way. Everything I’ve done in my career has provided a foundation for this type of work.”

Kimberley Kearsey is managing editor for RNAO.