Passion, coffee, and adrenaline – Nurse and U of T alumnus on working in the ICU and the Canadian Armed Forces during Covid-19

11 February 2021

Profile of Ryan Henderson

With his training as both an emergency room nurse and as a nursing officer in the military, Ryan Henderson has learned to be quick on his feet. In this profession, being able to solve a problem and pivot to adapt to any situation are skills that he credits for helping him in his role as a nurse and during a global pandemic.

“It’s funny that those soft skills we learned in the nursing program, things like reflective practice and resiliency, not only work, but have in many ways prepared us to be on the front lines during Covid-19,” says Henderson, a graduate of the BScN program at the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing.

The ongoing challenges facing nurses right now is “an example,” Henderson says, “of how heavily society has come to rely on nurses rising to the occasion in very dark times and being a stalwart support for the patient.”

As a trauma ICU nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, a Covid-19 hotspot, Henderson has had to adapt to a shifting work environment in a variety of ways. With rising case numbers of Covid-19 and an influx of patients, Henderson and his fellow nurses are now working in what is described as a “pod model,” where three ICU patients are assigned to just one nurse.

“The landscape is still changing,” says Henderson, “but I am lucky to be able to have a great team of nursing colleagues around me.”

In the early days of the pandemic Henderson found himself acting as a Covid-19 coordinator on his unit. Taking on a job that had never existed before, it became Henderson’s responsibility to bridge the gap between various care units and staff as the first cases of Covid-19 were admitted.

“I was working the night shift and some respiratory therapists came up to myself and my fellow nurse colleagues asking about our respiratory equipment and preparedness for these patients, and it really caught us on our heels,” recalls Henderson.

During that time, Henderson worked on a cohesive strategy to synthesize the deluge of information that was coming in, whether it was pertaining to best practices for treatments of Covid-19 patients, to coordinating transport plans for Covid positive patients who required CT or MRI scans.

“There was a lot going on,” says Henderson. “I needed to make sure that any staff encountering a positive patient were safe which required significant planning. Nursing is a challenging job, and stresses like these, a humanitarian crisis, a mass casualty event, can highlight cracks already there and deepen them.”

Henderson is no stranger to challenging situations. As a nursing officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, he has been trained to be ready for a variety of situations, and his passion for nursing has helped fuel him to do his best work, even when it involves risk.

Before thousands of Covid-19 cases had arrived on Canadian shores, Henderson was working as a medical liaison at CFB Trenton, helping to prepare the area for Canadian’s being repatriated from around the world including cruise ships.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Tokyo was quickly making headlines as the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread. To repatriate Canadians stuck on board, the Canadian Armed Forces were called upon to support Global Affairs Canada, and Henderson happened to be in the right place at the right time. With just four hours’ notice, he found himself on a plane to Japan.

“I didn’t even have my passport on me,” says Henderson of the sudden change in plans, “but as a nurse that’s what you are trained to do, adapt and be there ready to provide the best care that you can.”

Tasked with preparing PPE and medical supplies in case patients deteriorated on the plane, Henderson and his team collaborated closely with staff from Global Affairs Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and local Japanese authorities to ensure everything was in place. This included the development of a risk stratification seating plan with distancing requirements for the plane ride home.

Henderson recalls the “logistical feat” of going room to room onboard the massive cruise ship in head-to-toe PPE to screen Canadian passengers.

“I think I appreciated the risk that was involved in that moment,” he says, “but I didn’t hesitate.”

Looking back, Henderson recalls how surreal it seems to watch media coverage of the Diamond Princess cruise ship crisis, including the documentary available on CBC.

“It makes me proud of how I contributed to that historical moment and played a part in the human aspect of it,” he says.

In an effort to provide a humanizing moment for passengers, Henderson and a physician colleague wrote a “script” for the plane ride back to Canada, where they honoured the hard work of the passengers in overcoming this challenging experience.

“After being isolated for weeks alone. You could sense how worried everyone was, and we wanted to reassure them in some way,” says Henderson.

Thirty-six hours after boarding the cruise ship, Henderson was back in Ontario on a bus to a quarantine facility in Cornwall.

“That was the most fatigued I have ever been. I was going on passion, coffee and adrenaline,” he says.

That passion for providing quality care, problem solving, analyzing and interpreting information has inspired Henderson to pursue further education with a graduate degree focused on healthcare. As we speak Henderson is also back with the Canadian Armed Forces, training to become a critical care flight nurse, to support future humanitarian aid missions and the repatriation of injured military members.

“Nursing has been very good to me, despite the challenges and the stresses, it has given me a lot of opportunities,” says Henderson. “As nurses, we have to touch and support every patient we encounter, it’s a special role, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”