Meet two nurses working on the N.W.T.'s COVID-19 vaccination teams

·4 min read
Ella Aitken, right, moved to the N.W.T. in December from Victoria, B.C., to be part of the territory's immunization team.
Ella Aitken, right, moved to the N.W.T. in December from Victoria, B.C., to be part of the territory's immunization team.

(Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)

Two nurses fly to Nahanni Butte, N.W.T., early Friday morning with only their luggage and a grey freezer full of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

The nurses are one of a series of frontline teams making up the territory's COVID-19 immunization response team — affectionately nicknamed CIRT on their matching T-Shirts.

The plane carrying the nurses and doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine lands in Nahanni Butte on February 19, 2021.
The plane carrying the nurses and doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine lands in Nahanni Butte on February 19, 2021.

The nurses' jobs are to give the second dose to people who got their first dose, and answer any questions for those still considering getting the vaccine.

The nurses were greeted by a dozen people lined up outside Nahanni Butte's community gym, waiting for their shot.

'It seemed like a really exciting adventure'

Sheila Laity, the head nurse, said she was in "semi-retirement" when COVID-19 hit, working odd shifts as an orthopedic nurse and in the emergency room at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife.

People lined up outside Nahanni Butte's community gym as soon as the clinic opened its doors.
People lined up outside Nahanni Butte's community gym as soon as the clinic opened its doors.

After reading about the territory's vaccine plan in December, Laity said she reached out to the territory to see if they needed any help.

"It seemed like a really exciting adventure [and] an opportunity to be involved in something that will have a major impact," Laity said.

Sheila Laity, right, talks to a patient before administering the second dose of the Moderna vaccine in Nahanni Butte, N.W.T.
Sheila Laity, right, talks to a patient before administering the second dose of the Moderna vaccine in Nahanni Butte, N.W.T.

The vaccination clinic is a happy place to be, Laity said, because most who come here are "really excited" to get their vaccine.

"It's really hard not to be excited with them," she said. "Excitement's contagious."

'I've always felt a calling to the north'

Ella Aitken, 23, is one of the other nurses on the Nahanni Butte team.

The recent graduate worked 12-hour shifts on the respiratory floor of a hospital in Victoria, B.C., during the first months of the pandemic. One of her coworkers, who used to work in the N.W.T., told Aitken in December they were looking for nurses for the N.W.T.'s immunization team, so she put her name forward for the job.

Aitken's mother spent a few years of her childhood in the N.W.T. and kept mementos of that time, like a bear rug, in their home. She wanted to come see the land her mother told her so much about.

Ella Aitken waits for the next client at her nursing station in Nahanni Butte's community gym.
Ella Aitken waits for the next client at her nursing station in Nahanni Butte's community gym.

"I've always felt a calling to the North," she said. "Everything just fell into place and it worked out pretty well."

Still, there are mixed emotions for Aitken working on the vaccine rollout. While she's glad to see people in small communities like Nahanni Butte getting immunized, she said it's been a bit emotional because she knows vulnerable people in B.C. who don't have the same access.

Aitken said it's also tough being so far away from home, but calls people when she can.

All of that is worth it, when Aitken thinks about the work she's doing.

A peek inside the freezer where the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are kept. The portable freezer came in with the nurses on their flight to Nahanni Butte. They keep watch over the temperature of the vaccine throughout the day to make sure the batches don't spoil.
A peek inside the freezer where the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are kept. The portable freezer came in with the nurses on their flight to Nahanni Butte. They keep watch over the temperature of the vaccine throughout the day to make sure the batches don't spoil.

"It's definitely a privilege, being able to … make people feel comfortable and safe. It's definitely something I don't take for granted."

'They're the people making the difference'

At the end of the day, the nurses said they'd given the second dose to all 43 people on their list, and administered some more first doses for people who couldn't get it the first time. Not one dose was left over.

The nurses pack everything up into airtight containers, regulate the temperature of the vaccines' freezer and check their lists to see what supplies they might need to replenish before heading to the next community.

The vaccination team waves goodbye as they board their flight from Nahanni Butte after finishing their vaccination clinic.
The vaccination team waves goodbye as they board their flight from Nahanni Butte after finishing their vaccination clinic.

Laity makes a point to thank everyone who comes for their shot before they leave.

"They're the people making the difference," Laity said. "I can deliver vaccine, but if there isn't an arm to receive it, there won't be a change."