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July 6, 2020 | Alumni

Diary of a COVID cleaner: U of T alumnus Stephen Lew's insights on long-term care go viral

By Yvonne Palkowski

Stephen Lew wears a mask and a T-shirt reading We Stand and Fight COVID-19. He holds cleaning supplies in his gloved hands.

As a veteran IT project manager with the City of Toronto, Stephen Lew (BSc 1992 UC) typically works at a computer. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and his role was deemed non-essential, he was redeployed as a cleaner at Castleview Wychwood Towers, a City-run long-term care facility.

Despite the risks, the 51-year-old Lew, who has asthma and high blood pressure, has enthusiastically embraced his new role. He documents his experiences interacting with residents and disinfecting surfaces to protect them in Diary of a COVID Cleaner, a series of Facebook posts that have captured international attention for providing a humble, candid, and cautiously optimistic take on life in a long-term care home during the pandemic.

University College writer Yvonne Palkowski sat down with Lew to find out more about what motivates him and what it’s like on the front lines.

Thanks for speaking with us! Can you please tell us a bit about your time as a student at University College?

I was a bachelor of science student at UC from 1987 to 1992, staying my first two years in residence at Whitney Hall. I was supposed to graduate in 1991, but I ended up starting a bachelor of social work degree at Ryerson University in my final year, so didn't finish until 1992.

My arrival at UC started off a little shaky when I was picked up from the airport at the beginning of frosh week in 1987 by an uncle I had never met.

"My UC days taught me how to learn, how to meet people out of my comfort zone"

He took me to his house, with the expectation that he was to house and feed me for the next four years, only to realize that all that was required was to drive me down to Whitney Hall for move-in day and the start of orientation.

I was assigned to what was supposed to be a double room, only to find when I opened my dormitory room that two of the three beds were taken, and that I was to live in a triple with people I had never met. We ended up becoming great friends that I still keep in touch with, and we kept our triple arrangement, even after single rooms were offered... Until one of my roommates got a girlfriend, and then he wanted out... fast.

Having never lived on my own before, my UC days were quite formative, and taught me how to learn, how to meet people out of my comfort zone, and how to live independently of parental help (outside of the very appreciated financial support).

These days, you're an IT project manager for the City of Toronto. What was your reaction when you learned that you were being redeployed to a long-term care home as a cleaner?

I wasn't surprised. Immediately prior to the start of COVID-19 redeployment of management staff, the City was in preparations for continuance of City services with a possible labour disruption due to the ongoing negotiations of labour agreements between the inside and outside workers' unions. I had been redeployed three times in the past­­—first typing manual, paper welfare cheques for social services in the mid-1990s, once as a cleaner at the Seaton House homeless men's shelter, and once as a cleaner for the special police units including the hold-up squad, undercover, electronic crimes, and surveillance units. As management staff, we are used to performing "other duties as required," and in fact, this is often written into our job descriptions.

"Perhaps ignorance was bliss... But I felt strong and capable, and figured I had the skills and energy to help"

When I was told of a request for staff identified as non-essential to identify if they would be willing to be redeployed to help support the City's pandemic response, I felt the need was there, and sent in the notification of my availability.

Both my family and I had concerns, as the highly infectious nature of COVID-19 was only just starting to be known. I have high blood pressure and asthma, both conditions that put me at a higher level of risk for complications if I happen to get infected. Some of the horror stories we are all too familiar with about COVID-19-related tragedies that have occurred in some long-term care homes (not City-run homes, mind you) had not yet surfaced.

Perhaps ignorance was bliss... But I felt strong and capable, and figured I had the skills, oddly enough as both a cleaner from prior redeployments, and as a social worker, and energy to help and I wanted to do so.

You record your experiences in a series of public entries on your Facebook page, entitled "Diary of a COVID Cleaner." Why did you start the diary, and what has been the response?

Although I had some script writing and theatre experience back in high school with Alberta Theatre Projects and the Loose Moose Theatre Company, I actually consider myself more of a photographer than a writer.

I have a really bad memory. Combined with being given the opportunity to have been exposed to some extraordinary experiences during past travel, sporting, and cultural adventures, as well as raising a couple of very active kids, I have always found the need to ensure I don't forget about some of the adventures I have been fortunate enough to have been be a part of.

Thankfully, a number of major adventure magazines (including most of the rock climbing and paddling magazines, as well as major corporate clients like sporting goods companies and airlines like American Airlines) have been interested in some of the photographs and travelogues I have created, so I have benefited greatly from the support and guidance of some good photo and content editors.

"I have always found that taking pictures helps trigger so many memories"

I have always found that taking pictures helps trigger so many memories and details from events every time I review my slides, photobooks, or images on my computer, that I am motivated to ensure I have some form of decent camera with me at almost all times so I can capture slices of the amazing moments that seem to have a tendency to happen a lot around me.

With my time in redeployment at the Castleview Wychwood Towers Long Term Care Facility, I found that although I have been able to capture some phenomenal photographic images and moments from everyday life in the midst of a viral pandemic lockdown, there were so many stories behind the images that I felt I needed to remember, that writing the details down was the only way to ensure some of these memories would not get lost.

Traditionally, my Facebook feed has been predominantly a format for me to post sarcastic comments, cheesy memes, or photos from my various outings with a focus and intended audience of a only few family members and a handful of close friends.

As a reflection of this narrow focus, the first entry of my Diary of a COVID Cleaner was in fact merely a photo of the disinfecting chemical dispensing unit, with the simple statement that some of the slots in the machine dispensed beer and whiskey.

A few days after this first post, I came to the realization that every day was offering a glimpse into a whole world that was both foreign, fascinating, and frightening at the same time, and I needed to start writing some of my experiences down before I forgot about them. I quickly found that my posts were being shared and re-posted, and I was starting to get feedback from distant friends, and eventually from some families of the residents that I am in contact with, about how much they appreciated hearing the stories I was sharing "from the inside." It eventually became somewhat of a personal mission to ensure that I took this opportunity to present a different side of the COVID-19 experience than the one I was being bombarded with in the news.

"Every day there were nuggets of life that were so different from what I would normally experience, that it became a real joy to start looking for these shareable snippets"

I was surprised at how positive an experience my redeployment was, even though the risk of viral exposure was there. Every day there were nuggets of life that were so different from what I would normally experience, that it became a real joy to start looking for these shareable snippets, and to match them to some of the images I have been capturing. When my kids started rushing down to greet me at the end of my day to hear the stories I had to share with them, I knew I was experiencing something really special.

When the Toronto Star found my posts after a retired colleague had forwarded them to Jack Lakey as part of his regular "Fixer" column, my posts gained a little more traction. Following the publishing of Jack's interview, Andy Slavitt (ex-head acting manager of the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) re-tweeted the article about me, and I started receiving interest in my experiences more internationally.

By the way, Andy said I was a credit to my mother. Who can argue with one of the former heads of Obamacare?

Unfortunately, due to privacy concerns and photo release requirements we are working through, some of the stunning images I have taken can't be shared... yet. But we are exploring some options through the executive team at the home, and through some other partner divisions to put something together, so stay tuned.

What do you like best about your new role, and what will you miss about it when you return to IT?

I am really inspired by the team I am working with—my co-redeployees Jane French from Toronto Museums, Laurie Belzak from Economic Development, and Amy Condon from Courts Services have been super, and bring such an interesting and diverse set of experiences to this pandemic response, making the days fly by quickly. We have all maintained a resident-centric approach to our redeployed experience, in spite of the work and environment being well out of our comfort zone of usual professional experience.

"I am seeing inside a world that, due to infection control procedures, not even family can witness first-hand"

The management team starting with Bahar Karimi, the Facility Administrator, has been amazing... Resident-focused, inspirational to staff, and firecrackers for enforcement of professional nursing practices and infection prevention and control.

What I am really enjoying now is the opportunity to experience a privileged view on life, and one that may very well be mine in a few years. I am seeing inside a world that, due to infection control procedures, not even family can witness first-hand.

Knowing that I can see these things and capture them in a variety of mediums, like images combined with narrative that can be shared with others, is a real privilege and something so deeply personal, that it will be near impossible to recreate the same emotional intensity in my regular day job as a technology-based project manager.

As a front-line worker, what advice can you provide to others about dealing with the virus, both physically and emotionally?

Take care of yourself. Wash your hands. Do what you can to protect others.

You don't have to be symptomatic to be a carrier, and a little bit of discipline can help protect a fragile, vulnerable population.

"Look out for the people around you. Did I say wash your hands already?"

Build a community of support around you where you can. This can start with simply saying “hi” to people, and not being a jerk in a long lineup at the grocery store.

If three months of restricted movement and self-imposed quarantine have shown anything, it is the importance of maintaining positive connections with the people around you, whenever and however you can.

Anything else you would like to share?

Cough and sneeze in your sleeves. Pay it forward and look out for the people around you. Did I say wash your hands already?