This First Person article is the experience of Laura Sang, a resident physician at a hospital in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
As I rummage through the boxes of N95 masks, I finally find the one in my size. It’s the last one.
I gingerly remove it and throw away the box. I hope when I must change it in a few hours, I’ll be able to find another one on a different floor. That familiar sharp, synthetic odour penetrates my senses as I adjust the mask to seal tightly around my nose, trying to avoid applying excessive pressure to the tender area underneath.
Armed with my gown, mask, goggles and face shield, I check in with my patients, one by one. I then review their lab test results — another two are now COVID-positive. That explains why one patient, a woman in her early 80s, was so sleepy this morning, her toast sitting untouched at her bedside.
I wave goodbye after assessing the jovial fellow with wild, scraggly hair and a personality equally as vibrant. He was admitted for a bloodborne infection and needs a specific type of cardiac imaging to make sure no damage was done to his heart. However, this patient is on a ward with an active outbreak and the results of his latest COVID test aren’t back yet.
After much discussion with the cardiologist, we all decided that the safest thing for everyone would be to postpone the imaging and send him home.
With each procedure, we have to weigh its benefits against the risk of the patient or staff getting COVID.
After a full shift in the hospital wards — the wards have been blurred together over the course of the pandemic — I cover for the evening shift in the intensive care unit. I review the list of patients and realize more than half are admitted in critical condition with COVID.
A patient’s worried wife calls, asking for an update. I tell her we’ll call her back. All the staff are in this patient’s room, flipping him over for the night. Putting these ICU COVID patients on their stomach seems to help with recovery, I explain.
Among the many tasks to take care of that evening, I was instructed to follow up on blood work for this patient. The results come back abnormal; however, I don’t get a chance to deal with them right away as a new patient arrives with a deteriorating respiratory status.
I read the chart: “Severe COVID pneumonia, patient unvaccinated.”
I scramble to assess the need for intubation while simultaneously having to remind myself to step out as soon as possible to address those lab results. My pager wails incessantly while I finish assessing the patient — each critical beep a reminder that I am needed elsewhere in the hospital.
Despite being entrenched in the front lines of the pandemic for two years, this wave feels different. Thankfully, people are less sick this time around due to vaccination and the properties of this new variant. Nevertheless, because it is so contagious, the sheer volume of people who are sick is that much higher.
The pandemic is exhausting on so many levels for health-care workers. The hours are long, the cases are hard, the emotions run high and the bags under my eyes show what it’s done to my sleep. The care I strive to give isn’t aligned with what I am able to give.
It’s the little things that show me the extent of the staffing shortage: the whispers in the hallway of who is out sick this week, the exhausted nurse propping her head up with her hand as she covers for a colleague who is getting tested after a possible COVID exposure. Even delays in refilling the paper towel in the washroom.
All of this is taxing on an already strained system, impacting everyone’s ability to get medical care of any kind. We need our essential workers present to provide essential services. Our system is overwhelmed, our workers are overwhelmed, we all are overwhelmed. So please, I urge you, find that strength inside you to continue to follow public health guidelines. Mask up, stay home, stay safe, stay strong.
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