A 2020 story: When COVID sent a young theatre grad to work in hospital, stage skills got her through

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Like thousands of other university students in Quebec, 23-year-old Tiernan Cornford’s last year at Concordia was cut short by the pandemic in March.

Unlike most new grads, however, the theatre student found herself in the last place she would have imagined -- in the centre of a public health storm.

She had planned to be centre stage. “I was working on my own solo show with friends, that we were supposed to put up at the Mainline [theatre] independently,” the Chateauguay resident said.

She also had plans to travel to the Stratford Festival. The province’s lockdown crushed any hopes of launching her fledgling performance career. So she had to turn to plan B.

What was that? It became clear to the recent graduate she’d have to hang on to a part-time job she’d had for the last year -- which happened to be at the Jewish General Hospital.

But everything was suddenly dramatically different. No longer was she working at a hospital just to earn a little extra money. She was suddenly an essential worker at a designated COVID-centre, at a time when fear of the little-understood virus was at an all-time high.

“The Jewish was the first hospital to receive COVID patients and we kind of heard the whispers going around, 'Oh, there’s one, there are two patients'… So there was the anxiety of what’s going to happen. I did feel the trepidation of it all,” said the 23-year-old.

Cornford said it wasn’t easy to work amid the tension and when she felt scared or low, she wondered whether she could continue.

The former theatre student said she asked herself some tough questions.

“Am I going to just sit back while everybody else is having a difficult time?" she thought. "Or am I going to take the opportunity to stay and help in any way that I can?”

She stayed -- a decision inspired in no small measure by her family, most of whom are health-care workers.

Her mother is an assistant head nurse in obstetrics at the Jewish General Hospital, her father is an operating-room orderly there, her uncle is an orderly at the Jewish Eldercare Centre, her aunt is a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, and her cousin is a respiratory therapist at the Lakeshore General Hospital.

Cornford threw herself into her work on the logistics team that supplies the operating rooms with needed equipment and surgical products.

"Then we stepped up. We were able to distribute a bunch of PPE, so that’s what we did at the beginning of the pandemic,” she said.

As they handed out visors and N-95 masks to the health-care workers, she got a close-up view of exactly “what was happening on the front lines,” and it was “daunting,” she said.

The stories about nurses burning out and getting sick became all too real for Cornford, who witnessed those stresses first-hand.

The virus also hit close to home. Her uncle, a police officer with Toronto Police got COVID when he came to Montreal to attend a funeral in late March. His wife, also an officer in her mid-forties, contracted the disease soon after.

She suffers from such serious and lingering lung problems she was forced to retire from her job with Toronto Police.

“That was a wakeup call, where I thought, 'Oh, this could affect anybody,” Cornford said. Her police officer aunt was an active person who hiked and cycled everywhere, and now can’t even work, let alone do the activities she loves.

One close family member also died from COVID-19, a loss that Cornford says she isn’t ready to discuss. 

But among the tough transformation of the world around her, Cornford found herself changing to meet the adjustment.

To boost her spirits, as well as staying connected to her pre-pandemic dreams -- and what she hoped would be her post-pandemic future -- Cornford turned to music.

“Making music has been one of the best things that's been able to heal me throughout," she said.

COVID-19 didn’t stop her from finding the perfect seasonal song and recording it with a friend, as she did last year.

“The music and lyrics help me connect to people and that keeps my mind really active and joyful...and you can listen to it over and over again,” she said.

There can even be a little dancing at work in between and before shifts,she said, ”keeping those performing skills handy.”

With the health crisis in Quebec showing no signs of abating, the young woman says she hasn't stopped thinking about how she’ll be, and who she’ll be, when we’re on the other side of it.

Like most people her age, she says, she used to chase after the next fun event and the best location. Now that all seems to matter less, she says.

“It’s affected me in the way that I think about things, the things I have to weigh in terms of my values and what I cherish most," she said. "The connections with people are what I cherish most."

It's not about being in the coolest place at the right time, she said. After this year, it feels like "it doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you have those people with you."

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