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What it's like working on the front lines of cancer during COVID-19

Nurses at Northern Light Cancer Care are adjusting their routines during the coronavirus pandemic to protect vulnerable patients, emotionally and physically.

BANGOR, Maine — Working on the front lines of cancer care is certainly never an easy role. It's a physically and emotionally tough environment to be immersed in every day, and in light of the coronavirus pandemic, it's become perhaps even more difficult.

In an effort to protect patients and employees, staff members at Northern Light Cancer Care have been taking on new, added measures on a daily basis. These include screening every person who comes into the facility to check for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 and cleaning door handles, furniture, and equipment every 15 to 20 minutes.

That's been a team effort, taken on by physical therapists, nurses, medical assistants, radiation therapists, the receptionist -- and the list goes on. 

"Cancer patients are at three to five times higher risk of dying from coronavirus than the normal patient population," said Dr. Sigrid Berg, the medical director of Northern Light Cancer Care, to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "A lot of our patients are very anxious about coming out into the community and coming out for their treatments."

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Another emotional stress includes the fact that as an added precaution, adult cancer patients can no longer bring in family members during appointments or treatments for the time being.

Heather Turner, a staff nurse at the department, says that she and her fellow nurses always try to keep a positive environment and have received uplifting feedback from the community about their efforts -- but the new restrictions have made doing so more challenging at times.

"We have to be there emotionally for (patients) because they can't have their plus one," Turner explained to NEWS CENTER Maine.

"It's one of those places that, you know, we feel you really have to want to be here to be here," Angel Francini, a clinical educator at the department, also noted.

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Going into the hospital every day also raises some cause for concern for these nurses regarding their personal lives. Francini and Turner each have families they come home to every day that they want to protect. They've been doing that by trying to avoid contamination as much as possible and having open discussions about the importance of staying home and social distancing.

"It's always in the back of your head -- that, you know, 'Am I going to take this home to my loved ones, as well?'" Francini expressed.

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The brave work these health care workers are doing doesn't go unnoticed, though. Janet Durgin is from Aroostook County and has a longtime connection with Northern Light Cancer Care because of a years-long battle with lung cancer. Her disease is no longer progressing, according to Durgin, so she has been able to do telehealth visits to limit travel during this pandemic. As a former nurse, she understands what these workers are going through every day.

"I keep thinking, 'I wonder what I would do if I wasn't -- of course, if I was younger -- and I was still actively working in the hospital?'" Durgin questioned. 

For now, life for these brave men and women is carrying on -- this week, with perhaps more recognition than usual. It's National Nurses Week from May 6-12.

"I just don't want people forgotten that are risking their lives to keep us all safe," Durgin emphasized.

"This too shall pass, so we have to ride it out," Turner assured. 

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At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus