What's It Like To Cross The Border Between Essential Work And Home?

Apr 16, 2020

It’s been nearly a month since the U.S. and Canada closed the border to non-essential travel, So, what’s it like to be one of the few people who are still making the border crossing regularly to work essential jobs?

Jennifer Lavelle knows. She’s an emergency department nurse at a hospital in the Northeast Kingdom. She’s a U.S. citizen, but she lives in the Sherbrooke region of Quebec with her Canadian husband and their young son.

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In the first few days after the border closed, Lavelle said she had a tense interaction with a Canadian border agent. She was ultimately allowed to go back into Canada, but she said as she waited at the border, she thought she might not be able to get home.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with emergency department nurse Jennifer Lavelle. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jennifer Lavelle: It was really nerve wracking. It's starting to feel a lot better, as they're getting more familiar with me. But I had this fear every day that I was going to work, that I might not be able to get back into Canada and see my husband and son, and then that my husband, who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident yet, would not be able to get into the U.S. So that was extremely stressful at first. As time's going on, I think it's just, you know, they're more familiar with the situation, and they kind of know who can come in and who cannot come in.

More from VPR: 'I Knew What I Was Getting Myself Into': A Veteran Nurse On The Pandemic

Henry Epp: In terms of your potential exposure in those interactions, how close are you to a border agent? How much are they wearing protective equipment? And has that changed at all in the last few weeks?

Yes. So it's definitely changed. I pull a little further away from the booth. I was actually told to do that by one of the agents, which was nice. On both sides they're all wearing gloves when you cross, now. I had been told also by one agent once, you know, that health care workers are the highest risk. And I know that they have some masks and some eye shields, too. I have seen a couple of border agents in those. Not everyone is wearing them, but they are at least all wearing gloves.

You're going from home through the border and then to an emergency department. Are you feeling safe in terms of your potential exposure to the virus? What does that feel like?

I do. Weeks before this even became a shutdown and whatnot, we had pretty good leadership at our hospital and we'd been required to wear eye goggles, masks, gloves with every patient, just kind of pretending as if every patient potentially has the virus. So we've been taking a lot of extra precautions that I'd normally had never taken as a nurse, in terms of, like, I'm not leaving the hospital in scrubs. Even around my colleagues, I still have my mask on, everything. So actually, the only people I'm around, in close proximity to, without like a mask on, would be the border agents. So I think we are hopefully far enough apart. So hopefully, because it's, you know, a more rural area, the incidence is low enough that hopefully we're not putting each other at risk in either direction.

Jennifer Lavelle, her husband, Francois Dussureault, and their son Milo.
Credit Courtesy

What kind of support has has your hospital given to you and and other folks that are crossing the border for work?

They've been pretty supportive. I know that they've tried to reach out to Border Patrol. You know, I don't know how much sway they have, but at least letting them know that there will be employees that live on both sides, like, you know, cross back and forth. So they had been pretty supportive. I know the first day I was, you know, highly, highly stressed about the situation. And my manager was amazing and just helpful, you know, and reassuring. So I'm just taking it one day at a time.

What's it been like in the emergency department these days? I mean, do you know if you've interacted with people who tested positive for COVID-19?

I wouldn't know because the testing is not very quick. And then once a patient is no longer your patient, you're not privy to basically any of their medical information or whatnot. So I don't. But we still have a lot of protective equipment. I have a lot of friends that I had gone to nursing school with or grew up with that work in New Jersey, New York state. And I feel super worried for them. And I feel very thankful to be in this region and have had time to prepare and also to have had a lower rate of infection in this area as of yet.

And just finally, Jen, I understand your ultimate goal is that you and your family move here to the U.S., is that right?

Yes. I mean, our ultimate, ultimate would be for dual citizenship on both sides. But, yeah, that was our goal. We had applied for permanent residency for my husband. He would have had his interview actually on the 24th of April. But that was canceled, obviously, because of pandemic. So I don't know when that'll be rescheduled, because it's been a pretty long process. And that was kind of our light at the end of the tunnel. But, that's put on hold for sure. So we're kind of just waiting to see what happens.

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