Most people probably don’t think about housekeepers when they think about health-care workers. But to those who choose this line of work, caring comes before cleaning.In a recent interview with a group of Saskatoon Health Region housekeeping staff, it takes about 20 minutes before the topic of cleaning even comes up. “I work at Royal University Hospital on 6100, Oncology and Hematology and I’ve made a lot of friends up there,” says Patricia Kerluke. “I’m an ear for the patients, I listen to them when they want to vent. Many days are very emotional.”
Phyllis MacDonald works evenings at RUH and appreciates the one–on-one time she gets with patients and their families. “I’ll always remember a lady I got to know while her husband was in the hospital. She didn’t have any family in Saskatoon so she would chat with me,” says MacDonald. “Unfortunately six months later he was back in the hospital again but when she saw me she came running over and gave me a big hug. You really don’t think you have that much of an impact when you’re just going about your day.”
Shannon Halischuk has worked at Parkridge Centre for almost 30 years and has been at the facility since it opened. Working in long term care, she’s developed the same kinds of connections and relationships with clients that the other housekeepers have in the acute care sites, only stronger.
“It’s ingrained in us from the very beginning; Parkridge is their home,” says Halischuk. “We are in their rooms for extended periods of time and they come to rely on us. We’re just as much caregivers as nurses and physicians are.”
“When I first started I actually didn’t think I would like being around patients,” says Bernice Umpherville, who works days at Saskatoon City Hospital. She laughs as she talks about teasing and joking with one of her patients. “But I do. Housekeeping is a physical, mental and emotional job but the people we meet, the patients we connect with make it all worthwhile. They’re the best part of my day.”
For Clayton Ross, who works evenings at SCH, the shift can be pretty quiet, especially working in non-patient areas like the lab. Ross has worked at all three of Saskatoon’s hospitals and says after starting as a housekeeper in the morgue and lab areas, nothing fazes him now. “I used to clean the morgue before the sun went down,” he jokes. “Now the places that other people find spooky don’t bother me. Others have their ghost stories but I’ve never seen or heard anything out of the ordinary.”
When these housekeepers finally get around to talking about cleaning, they all agree that when cleaning a regular patient room, one of the most important things to do is to ensure that all commonly touched surfaces and areas are cleaned and disinfected. “We were trained to start with the doorknobs and light switch and then you work your way around the room,” says Ross.
“We work really hard to make sure those rooms are safe and clean for the patients. We believe that infection prevention and control is part of our job,” explains Kerluke. “So it can be really frustrating when we see others not taking those same precautions or following protocols, like not changing gloves from one patient to another.”
Tanneille Cameron who works at St. Paul’s Hospital agrees. “Sometimes the hardest part about this job is other staff members not understanding and respecting what housekeepers do. It’s amazing how often I see garbage lying on the floor beside the garbage can in staff areas. Would you do that at home?”
The housekeepers in this group held other jobs before coming into health care. A few of them worked with animals and livestock and continue to do so, while others have done bookkeeping, or business management and have degrees in different areas. “I think the common misconception out there is that we are housekeepers because we’re uneducated and can’t do anything else,” says Cameron. “That is not true. We chose to do this.”
“A little respect, a little kindness goes a long way,” says MacDonald. “We’re all a team and we’re all working for the same reason, to be here for the patients and the families.”