The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree

GIVING BACK Amy Sangha stands in front of the tree that became a vehicle for fundraising and recovery.

COVID-19 Survivor Amy Sangha raises funds during her recovery to help empower women and girls around the world

Burnaby nurse Amy Sangha recalls the tree in her front yard that took on a special significance this April as she recovered from a life-threatening illness.

"I could see it from both my bedroom and my living room, where I was spending the bulk of my time. And I thought, trees represent life and growth, and it would be really nice if people could tie ribbons on the tree and then when they're not around it would remind me of them, give me something positive to think about and keep my spirits up because I was just feeling so down and out."

Little did Sangha know how much that tree would come to represent.

Sangha is one of the unfortunate health-care workers in BC who contracted COVID-19 in the course of her duties. The St. Paul's Hospital nurse works on the facility's transition services team, and it was there that she contracted the illness.

"I had my first symptoms on March 23 and it was instant – I went from feeling well to feeling unwell," she recalls. "I was just going up the stairs in my house and I remember thinking and feeling so weak, like my legs were going to give out on me and I had a really bad fever."

The 20-year nurse managed to get herself tested two days later. She received her COVID-positive results the next day and says that by then her symptoms had worsened significantly.

"If you talk to anybody who has had a fever with COVID, I think most will describe it the same way," she says. "It's merciless and it's relentless, like you just never, never get a break."

Sangha spent the next two weeks at home, hoping to recover, but her breathing continued to worsen until she had to go into the hospital. "I was in emergency for about eight hours and then I went up to the COVID unit where I stayed for a few days before being discharged."

It was only then that Sangha came face-to-face with the challenges of recovery.

"When you get discharged from hospital it's not like you're feeling like a million bucks," she says. "You go home and you're still ill. I live by myself. So cooking, cleaning, laundry – all that stuff— I still wasn't able to do any of it, and nobody could come in and help me because I was still in isolation."

"I was afraid to go to sleep because I thought I may never wake up again."

- Amy Sangha

Sangha feels very lucky to have a supportive circle of family and friends. "Someone was coming every day and dropping off hot meals and asking me if I needed anything. Just checking in on me, saying hello, trying to do whatever they could to keep my spirits up," she says.

"I had a few full-on breakdowns where I just cried because I was so exhausted from the illness – physically and emotionally. I was housebound 24 hours a day, seven days a week by myself, so there is an immense loneliness that you feel, and then the weakness, like you're not able to do anything. You basically go from bed to couch to bed to couch. It was just crazy."

And this was when the tree entered the story.

"I put a sign outside my house that read 'Health-care worker being held hostage by COVID-19. Please tie a ribbon on the tree to keep my spirits up as I kick some COVID ass,'" says Sangha. For every ribbon tied, Sangha also pledged to donate to the Burnaby Hospital Foundation, Care Canada's COVID-19 relief fund, which works to empower women and girls around the world, and Doctors Without Borders.

She asked those who tied a ribbon to take a photo and send it to her, and pledged to donate money for every ribbon tied. Soon, she began receiving ribbon photos from local family, friends, neighbours and strangers. But the promotion of her initiative on the Care Canada website also saw people from as far away as Australia, Germany, the UK and the US sending in pictures. As a result, the nurse donated over $6,000 from her own savings.

"And that's how it started – I had no idea it was going to become a global phenomenon," she recalls.

She says the experience has given her greater insight into the loneliness that patients can feel while in treatment. "It was very scary. When I went into hospital I felt vulnerable and alone even though I was receiving excellent care," she says. "But I had no one to talk to unless it was related to things like checking my vitals or administering medication. It was hard for me to have conversations extending beyond a few minutes anyways because of my breathing."

Sangha's loneliness was compounded by the fear and uncertainty of the illness itself. "Not being able to breathe was the most terrifying experience I've ever had. Breathing is just something we do automatically, we don't think about it. But as soon as you're fighting to take a single breath it becomes terrifying, really, really terrifying," she recalls.

"My breathing did not deteriorate to the point that I required ventilation, but this did not make it any less scary. I was acutely aware of how difficult my breathing was.

"When something so autonomic as breathing is threatened, you know it's not only a threat to your physical safety, it's a threat to your psychological safety. Living with that threat for the bulk of two weeks is really traumatic because you're aware that if you stop breathing, your life is over. I was afraid to go to sleep because I thought I may never wake up again."

Sangha is now in recovery and receiving trauma counselling, but her near-death experience has given her renewed insight into her practice, and the experience of being a patient.

"Asking me if I am back at work seems like an innocent enough question," she remarks. "However, to me it reveals how little we truly know about COVID and the impact it can have on people's lives. I'm like, 'What are you talking about? I almost died.' Even though I did not require ventilation, fighting to breathe in the context of COVID was the single most terrifying experience of my life."

Becoming a patient was also humbling for Sangha. "We don't think twice about asking a client to use a commode. It's common practice, but I found it humiliating. I felt vulnerable in a way I had never experienced before," she reflects.

"Having to ask somebody to pull the curtain to give me privacy was like – I don't know how else to describe it – the single most humbling experience of my life. I thought to myself, 'So this is how it feels to be on the other end of things.'

"Before anyone becomes a patient they are a person first and foremost.  We must never lose sight of that.  It seems obvious, but it's easy to succumb to the mechanics of the job when we are dealing with multiple competing demands."   

Sangha says she's immensely grateful to the first responders who got her to the hospital, and to the doctors and nurses who cared for her. "I'm also grateful to everyone who is helping keep society running –  grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, truck drivers, mail delivery personnel – and others."

Her message for fellow BCNU members?

"This is a really crazy time and none of us have ever experienced anything like this before. The main thing is to have compassion for ourselves, for each other and for our patients. Just really be good to ourselves because there are so many challenges." •

UPDATE (Summer 2020)

UPDATED: November 23, 2022
Christine Sorensen ties a ribbon on a tree


INSPIRED TO ACT BCNU President Christine Sorensen ties a ribbon around a tree outside her home in Kamloops to support the fundraising efforts of fellow nurse and COVID-19 survivor Amy Sangha. Sorensen made a donation to the BC food banks, through the Vancouver Foundation's BCNU Fund. She encourages other members to do the same, and learn more about the BCNU Fund and its partnership with Vancouver Foundation. All donations over $25 are tax deductible.

If you are NOT receiving updates, news, and events emailed to you, log in to the BCNU Member Portal and update your information.