Meaghan Thumath started working as a street nurse in Vancouver with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in 2008. Since then, she has been at the centre of some of the most extreme health crises at home and abroad.
Thumath recently returned from an Ebola deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a humanitarian aid worker with the World Health Organization. A clinical advisor to Vancouver Coastal Health’s COVID-19 response, she then travelled to Trenton, Ontario, for a Canadian Red Cross deployment to support Canadian COVID-19 evacuees from Wuhan, China.
Now, Thumath—who, over the years, has also held roles at Insite and Sheway, a pregnancy outreach program in the Downtown Eastside—has returned to her roots as a VCH street nurse.
In assisting vulnerable populations here in B.C. face the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s drawing on her experiences helping people confront Ebola.
“My time working on Ebola in West Africa has absolutely helped prepare me for the COVID-19 response,” says Thumath, who’s also clinician scientist at the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity and clinical assistant professor at UBC’s School of Nursing. “Many of the principles of infection control, emergency management, and outbreak response are the same.
“The biggest lesson that sticks with me from Ebola is that we need an all-of-society approach to tackle COVID-19, from grassroots community organizations to the private sector, health care, and communications,” she tells the Straight. “In the Ebola response we learned the hard way that clear and transparent risk communication and community engagement were vital to tackling the outbreak.”
Her days involve writing policies to prevent COVID-19 transmission and visiting shelters to support improved prevention and control among the city’s homeless communities. Typically, Thumath is in the Downtown Eastside, teaching other health-care providers and housing operators about COVID-19; she also works in the mobile testing unit and helps do contact tracing of new COVID-19 clients.
She stays safe through the use of personal protective equipment and says the hardest part of her job is heading home.
“The work feels so urgent, I am not good at taking time off,” Thumath says. “But I also feel really fortunate to be working and to be contributing in this way. I absolutely love my work and it’s a great privilege. I feel very grateful to be a nurse.”
A deep commitment to human rights and health equity draws Thumath to her work.
“People in the inner cities of our province are doing their best to protect themselves and others,” she says. “They need and deserve the tools to self-isolate and protect themselves. This includes a home, access to recreation and a safe supply, and basic human rights.
“My colleagues are working desperately hard to improve access to safe shelter and bring more resources to homeless people,” she adds. “This work is complex. We can and must do everything to protect society’s most vulnerable.”