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Canadian nurses cross border to care for American patients: "It's not a border, just a line we cross"

Nurses cross U.S. border to care for patients
Canadian nurses commute across the U.S.-Canada border to care for American patients 04:57

Detroit nurse Brent Gale's commute typically starts at 6 a.m. — and in another country. He works at St. Mary Mercy Livonia Hospital in Metro Detroit but lives across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada.

Many of Gale's patients often forget that he isn't from the U.S. until he says "about" or uses Canadian expressions, he says.

"I cross that international border every day, so when someone here says they were late because of traffic, I'm like, 'I came from another country,'" he told CBS News' Adriana Diaz.

He's not alone in his commute. At least 1,500 Canadians work in healthcare in Michigan, some drawn by more job opportunities. 

The small army of Canadians has risked their lives, especially in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 ravaged the U.S. and there were more daily COVID deaths in Michigan than in all of Canada. 

"It sucked, it was really bad. You'd see the wave coming and you're like, 'Okay, we survived it,'" he said. "Then that next wave was coming again before you could catch your breath."

Despite the grim conditions, Gale said it would have been "cowardly" to abandon his American neighbors during a time of need.

"It's not a border, it's just a line we cross," he said. "And we're the same people, you know? And I just think it would have been horribly cowardly to abandon my American cousins."

Canadian Lyndsey Lafleur, who's been an ER nurse at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital for nearly five years, still remembers last spring's surge like it was yesterday, recalling how overwhelmed she felt and how she "cried a lot."

"I just remember thinking, 'What is going on? We're running out of ventilators, everybody needs to be intubated,'" she said. 

"I just remember standing in the middle of the department and just looking around, like, dumbfounded and sad," she said.

At COVID's worst in Detroit, she had a newborn at home in Canada and considered walking away from nursing.

"I was really nervous. ... She was really young, so we had her sleeping in a pack and play in our room," she recalled. "And I was sleeping in her room in a tent because I wanted to like conceal myself somehow."

The commute across the international border to Detroit hasn't deterred Lafleur, who says she loves the city, the hospital she works for, the people she works with, and Detroiters.

But back home in Canada, there was some resistance to their cross-border work. There was sort of a "stigma" attached to their efforts — "you know, you're carrying the disease back and forth," Gale said, noting that there was a call in the local paper to have Canadians banned from traveling back and forth across the border.

Lafleur described the "stress" she felt from her community simply for doing her job.

"People were like, 'We thank you for all that you do, but at the same time, don't come near me,'" Lafleur said.

Both nurses contracted COVID: Gale became infected when a patient's intubation tube came loose, and Lafleur thinks she may have gotten it in Windsor — luckily, her daughter did not. They've since recovered and remain committed as ever, still treating their patients with a smile.

The two sides of the river are one community, and the nurses protect their own.

"This is our big deal, you know? This is our burning building," Gale said. "This is what we run to and what we've been trained for, like our moment to shine."

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