A look inside an Alberta ICU as health-care workers struggle with COVID-19 surge

In the pandemic response unit at the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary, Dr. Simon Demers-Marcil picked up the phone. It was his job to call a family to break the news that their loved one had died of COVID-19.

Demers-Marcil had made phone calls like this before, and he knew the first step was to make sure the person was in a safe place — breaking the news when someone is driving, for example, would be irresponsible.

There’s no easy way to say it. So Demers-Marcil usually starts calls this way: “We have some terrible news.”

One such call was captured in a photo posted by Alberta Health Services and shared thousands of times on social media.

Speaking to CBC News on Saturday night, Demers-Marcil said he doesn’t remember the specific moment depicted in the photo. But he said these calls have become almost part of a routine.

“What’s difficult with COVID is that a lot of times with life-threatening situations, we’re used to having the families there in the unit,” he said.

“So with this new world we live in, we have to find a way to communicate accurately, and in a sensible way, very hard news like this.”

A health-care worker makes his way through the pandemic response unit at the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary on Nov. 14. All photos were taken at the centre. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Alberta surpassed record high COVID-19 cases once again on Saturday, with another 1,336 people testing positive.

As of Saturday, 320 people were in hospital with the illness and 56 were in intensive care units.

Seventy ICU beds have been designated for COVID-19 patients in Alberta, meaning the province is quickly approaching that capacity — although Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Friday that more beds could be shifted if the need arises.

A doorway entering the pandemic response unit at the centre. As of Saturday, 320 people in Alberta were in hospital with COVID-19 — 56 in intensive care units. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

‘We need all the help we can get’

Demers-Marcil said with cases surging, it is important for people to respect health measures currently in place.

“We need all the help we get. Everyone counts. Respecting the physical-distancing measures is certainly an important part of this, and it makes our job easier if everyone does it properly,” he said. “The people who are in charge have very hard decisions to make.”

Nurses in personal protective equipment get ready to attend to a COVID-19 patient in the ICU. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, has warned that the weeks to come are likely to bring dangerous trends.

“In case anyone is wondering, we’re really in deep trouble in hospitals. This can’t continue,” Saxinger said on Twitter

“This is a deadly pandemic, but we will be looking at excess deaths because of failure to take appropriate measures.”

A health-care worker in the pandemic response unit. Seventy ICU beds have been designated for COVID-19 patients in Alberta, and the province is quickly approaching that capacity. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Demers-Marcil said he was open to discussing how he felt in the photo because he thinks everyone is feeling a bit isolated right now and has a right to know what happens in hospitals.

“They’re all part of what’s happening anyways,” he said. “They have family there that they can’t see. So I hope I’m able to bridge the gap by doing what I’m doing.”

When it comes to his own mental health, Demers-Marcil said he strives for balance — seeking to care for himself in the best way possible while still being available to provide care.

WATCH | Doctor describes his typical day working in an ICU during a pandemic:

ICU physician Dr. Simon Demers-Marcil describes his days working in the ICU at the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary. 0:56

“We’re emotionally attached anyways to our patients, but at the end of the day, if we want to do this on a regular basis, we need to protect ourselves emotionally,” he said.

He said he hopes that the shared photo can help to connect those outside hospitals and those working within.

“If people are able to feel some of the emotion I felt when I made that call, I think it also helps them understand what’s going on,” Demers-Marcil said. 

“And it bridges the gap between what we’re feeling working in the hospitals and what they’re feeling — maybe being afraid of what’s happening and being isolated through it all.”

Nurses wearing PPE in the ICU show teamwork. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Health-care workers tend to a COVID-19 patient in the ICU. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Nurses prepare before attending to a COVID-19 patient in the ICU. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Staff in the ICU at the Peter Lougheed Centre on April 17. ‘In case anyone is wondering, we’re really in deep trouble in hospitals. This can’t continue,’ Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, wrote on Twitter. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

A team of health-care workers attend to a patient suffering from COVID-19 in the ICU at Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary on Nov. 14. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Find out which neighbourhoods or communities have the most cases, how hard people of different ages have been hit, the ages of people in hospital, how Alberta compares with other provinces and more in: Here are the latest COVID-19 statistics for Alberta — and what they mean



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