“I couldn’t just stand by and watch”: Surrey Mom returns to Frontlines

COVID-19 in the Community is a special series detailing the reality behind the headlines that moms across the Fraser Valley continue to face amid a major health crisis.

Dunia Pinnegar, 41, works Monday to Friday as a clinical specialist for 3M Canada in the Medical Solutions Division. When COVID-19 struck, she began been picking up weekend shifts as a critical care nurse at Surrey Memorial and Peace Arch Hospitals.

This single mom of three tells Valley Mom what it’s like to work on the frontlines while also keeping her family safe, and her sanity intact.

It was clear from first time she put on a pair of scrubs, Pinnegar had found her true calling.

“It’s always been my passion to care for the sickest of the sick and their loved ones,” said the single mom of three who currently resides in the Clayton Heights area of Surrey, B.C.

Prior to moving to B.C. in 2004 from Ontario, she attended nursing school and started her career in healthcare on the other side of the border—Detroit, MI. Pinnegar worked everything from medical/surgical and trauma ER and ICU.

In September of 2019, she left Fraser Health and began work full time at 3M as Clinical Specialist for Western Canada in the Medical Solutions Division. 
But once news broke of the pandemic, she felt compelled to return to her “raison d’etre”—helping people. In scrubs. At the bedside.

A Typical Shift

A typical shift at the hospital starts in the change room.
Just one glance at her coworker’s faces tells her exactly what kind of day it’s going to be.

“You see the uncertainty in those coming on shift,” said Pinnegar. “You can see the relief of the people going off shift. The small talk happens, but it’s not quite the same.”

Scrubs go on, but there are extras now—a surgical face mask, a pair of safety glass, goggles, a scrub cap, and ‘ear savers’ are all added to her arsenal. 

Next, she is assigned her unit. 

Will she be heading to Camp COVID or holding down the fort with the rest of the critically ill population?

One isn’t better or worse than the other, admits Pinnegar.

“I feel safer in the hospital. I’m surrounded by like-minded people with the same goals, which is to care for the patient, stay safe, keep each other safe.”

In many ways, she says there are aspects of familiarity amid the chaos of the pandemic.

“Even before, families still said goodbye over FaceTime. Extreme precautions were taken due to highly infectious situations—the unbearable anguish people face. Difficult conversations lead to difficult decisions. It’s just that now it’s happening at a ridiculous rate. Too often.”

READ MORE: “I just really need a hug” : How a Single Mom in Abbotsford is Coping in Quarantine

 Before the dark COVID-19 storm came rolling in like an angry thundercloud devastating families, the economy, and health care system, there was time for frontline workers like Pinnegar to “come back down” in between challenging cases.

These days the light at the end of the tunnel seems out of reach.

“We understand that it’s life as we know it right now,” she said. “We don’t look towards the end. We don’t have time as the right now demands so much of us. Personally and professionally.”

The shift ends, but you don’t really ever leave, she says.

“You worry about the weary coworker that took shift handover from you. You replay the conversations you had with numerous family members over the course of 12 hours, hoping you were able to give them what they needed with your carefully chosen words.”

Dunia Pinneger and her three children

Back at the homefront, Pinnegar’s three children, Madina, 13, Kaden, 10, and Audrina, 10, are well-versed in hospital talk.
While they may not know specifics, they do recognize that mom plays an important role in helping to flatten the curve and care for some of society’s most vulnerable.

“My kids have grown up with mommy being a nurse and working with really sick people,” said Pinnegar who has worked through SARS, H1N1(while pregnant with twins) and MERS. 

She was the first RN to sign up for what is now known as the BC Biocontainment Unit, established in response to the Ebola pandemic in 2014.

“Now they ‘see’ the sickness all around them and how it’s affecting their lives. They get that this is what mommy does. She helps. And I couldn’t be more proud of that.”

READ MORE: Langley mom photographs families for #TheFrontStepsProject

While it has taken time, Pinnegar says she has gotten better and “turning it off” when she gets home.
“A quick shower, snuggle fest with the kids, a dog walk and a bite to eat then it’s life as usual.” 

A new perspective

But social media doesn’t always make it easy to shut out what’s happening around her. 
The posts from well-meaning friends, family members, and acquaintances who tout the pandemic as being “no big deal” is a slap in the face to all frontline workers. Even so, Pinnegar does her best not to take it to heart.

“It drives me completely insane,” she said matter-of-factly. “But at the same time, it’s made me a much more understanding person. People don’t ‘get’ things unless they are directly affected by it. There’s a lot, almost too much, out there to absorb about all this. What’s fact? What’s fiction? I have to take a breathe and understand and see it from other’s lenses. I’ve deleted a lot of responses to posts in Facebook threads.”

When it comes to juggling work with homeschool AND keeping her sanity intact, like millions of parents around the country, Pinnegar says it’s an impossible feat.

“If anyone that reads this figures it out, please let me know. We’re fortunate to have incredibly supportive teachers. Each of my kids couldn’t be more different (especially the twins), so their needs are different. I tried to be ‘that mom’ and set up a school at the dining table and whatnot. It’s been a struggle at times, but I think we’re finding our groove.” 

For parents of multiple kids who are struggling with homeschooling, Pinnegar says there has to be a lot of grace for both ‘teacher’ and learner alike.

“The thing that worked for me (as it did when went from one straight to three kids) is to remember their needs are different, and it’s a weird time for all. They know the expectations and are old enough for me to let them lead a little bit. It doesn’t all happen at the same time of day. It’s definitely not at my dining table school. But it’s happening.”

And for the million-dollar question. Will life go back to normal this summer? 

“Nope, and I’m ok with that for several reasons,” she said.

“For starters, I feel like we’re coming into a groove. We’d have to wean off of this way of life. I don’t know how that would look, and that makes me anxious. Secondly, it’s a beautiful day in beautiful British Columbia as I write this. You know how we are here. The sun comes out, and so do we! I fear that the moment we start to ease up, it’ll end up setting us back again. We all know some were not and are not being careful. All of this could have been over a while ago. So, no, I don’t see normal coming back any time soon. Different? Sure. But not normal.” 

Surrey Nurse COVID-19

Dunia Pinnegar with a small part of the Peace Arch Hospital ICU crew Kara RaymondMaria Adelina Ayeona Wandag and Miles Sahagun.

We’re all in this together

Every night at 7 p.m. Pinnegar hears the clang of pots and pans supporting frontline workers. She sees all the hearts displayed on windows, and the colourful signs made my her neighbours letting everyone know “We’re all in this together.”

But as parents have had to take on the role of ‘teacher,’ work from home, worry about finances and say ‘no’ more times than they can count this spring, Pinnegar emphasizes that no all heroes wear scrubs.

“I want to offer my gratitude and appreciation to all the Valley Moms (and Dads!) out there,” she said.

“Front line, sideline, wherever you are—this is hard on all of us. It’s different for all of us. But what a privilege it is for us to be able to get mad, look for change, receive support. There are people out there in the world who live like this every day of their lives. While I don’t expect anyone to be sunshine and rainbows throughout all of this, I really hope that somewhere, somehow, one day, we’ll be able to say we got through this, and we are better because of it. In the words of a truly incredible woman, “Be calm, be kind, be safe.”

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