KITCHENER -- Nurses have been on the front lines of the pandemic since day one.

That includes caring for the sick, staffing the intensive care units, and trying to stay healthy while on the job.

A difficult stay in the hospital years ago inspired Sarah Frey to make a career change and become a registered nurse.

“I decided that even if I can make that slight little difference in someone’s life while they are lying in a hospital bed,” said Sarah Frey, a registered practical nurse at Grand River Hospital.

The 35-year-old never imagined that would include caring for the sickest during a global pandemic.

“We do basic things that most people take for granted, like helping them get to the bathroom, helping them eat, and making sure they are still oxygenated,” said Frey.

The New Hamburg resident was also there on day one, when Waterloo Region saw its first COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital.

“If you’re COVID positive you can’t have visitors, so we became their family, we became their interaction with the rest of the world,” she said.

A nurse for half of a decade, the past year brought unique challenges and new moments of joy.

“We have seen you come in, we watched you get sicker, we watched you get better, and we get to watch you walk out the door,” Frey said.

Those highlights of the job are also shared by a nurse at St. Mary’s General Hospital.

Christine Young

“Watching those long COVID patients finally go home to their family members, it’s such a joy to be able to finally send them home,” said Christine Young, a registered practical nurse at St. Mary’s General Hospital.

Young says the first wave of the pandemic brought a lot of fear for those working in the hospital.

“The fear of getting COVID-19, the unknown feeling at the beginning of the pandemic,” she said.

As Canada marks National Nurses Week, the Ontario Nurses Association says more needs to be done.

“We need more people in the system working so there is respite and break time,” said Vicki McKenna, the provincial president of the Ontario Nurses Association. “We need acknowledgment for the valuable work that they bring."

McKenna says the average age of nurses is 49 and many are eligible to retire and leave the profession.

“We can’t afford to lose them,” said McKenna.