The Pandemic Frontline Heroes in their own Words: Part 1

Updated: Oct 20

New Year’s Eve 2019: we were waving sparklers, playing Auld Lang Syne and looking forward to 2020 – making resolutions, talking about graduating from schools and universities, maybe getting married or visiting a far-flung location. We had no idea all these dreams and aspirations were going to all fall away, rocked by an unseen killer, a virus that at the time was far away in a different land and had barely registered on the news cycle.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Pandemic has affected us all – for those of us who are young, we had to navigate home-schooling and have all our school traditions pulled out from under us. For the people working, some lost their jobs and some learned to work from home. For the elderly, it was a time of fear and loneliness. However, there is one group the pandemic affected more than any other – frontline health workers. They had to learn quickly about a new virus and took care of not just the patients who were sick with COVID, but all the patients who were affected by the pandemic in other ways. For example, those that were dealing with anxiety, those who were terminally ill and those who needed emergency services for reasons other than COVID-19.

To learn about their experiences, I interviewed doctors, nurses and paramedics across the North Shore and the Sunshine Coast. I asked all of them the same four questions. The answers I received were very emotional and moving. They tell us a lot about how hard it has been for the last 18 months for those who were charged with looking after us. Here are the notes I took during these interviews:

QUESTION ONE: “How has the pandemic affected you as a healthcare worker and how are you feeling now, 18 months in?”

The initial feeling was one of fear for many of the doctors. Dr. Robertson, a pediatrician on the North Shore stated, “for the first two months, I would go to the hospital with fear, but that fear has melted away as we now have our own knowledge and a better understanding of COVID and how it spreads.”

Dr. Nicola Walton-Knight, a North Shore Family Physician and part of the COVID task force, said, “this disease poses a risk to me and my family; as well as being in the front line,” which of course causes a lot of personal stressors for all these workers.

The pandemic has especially affected the staff in the Emergency Room – the physical front-line of the hospital. Dr. Eric Jaeger stated, “The strain of the pandemic on the emergency department has been tremendous. With so many unknowns about the virus, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, we were constantly having to adapt to new information and make changes to our processes and protocols around patient care to try and ensure the safety of not only our patients, but our team as well. Working on the front line was especially stressful as we were knowingly (but willingly!) putting ourselves at risk every day.” He also discussed how it has affected him as a doctor, stating, “I appreciate my team more than ever. I admire the resilience, adaptability, and heart in this emergency department, qualities that have truly been tested over the course of the past year. The past year has also taught me that perseverance and teamwork will get you through even the toughest challenges.” Some good advice for life in general!

Dr. Simon Bicknell, a radiologist at LGH, also felt wary at first, “I think all of us were a little on edge initially, but once we learned more about the virus, and how to protect ourselves whilst taking care of the COVID and non-COVID patients, our practice slowly went back to ‘near-normal.’”

Dr. Annika Vrana, an anesthesiologist at Lion’s Gate Hospital, finds wearing PPE all day has affected her work in particular, and said,”this means that the people I have cared for during the pandemic, will never know what I really look like, will never see my smile and will never properly see my eyes crinkle at a good joke that they may have shared with me. Though personal protective equipment is absolutely necessary, it has led to me feeling less connected with my patients and this at times has made my work feel harder.”

Dr. Paul Murphy, a Family Physician and Hospitalist on the Sunshine Coast echoed these sentiments, stating “my first challenge was my first ER shift and the anxiety this provoked. I was obviously worried that I might catch COVID but felt a moral obligation to go to work. I actually came to peace with the idea that if I got sick or died, then that was just a hazard of my vocation.”

Obviously, there has been a lot of stress throughout the healthcare system. Sandra Sodvat, a busy RN (registered nurse) said, “as the numbers increase so does my anxiety and heart rate. In the role of leadership I have to keep a calm demeanor to help the frontline nurses remain calm and ensure they always are using the correct Personal Protective Equipment to keep themselves and other patients safe.”

Exhaustion has also set in. Dr. Vyselaar, the Head of Cardiology at LGH stated, “I am tired. Heart disease doesn’t stop, and people can die if they wait for care, or get suboptimal care. So I keep going in and seeing the patients. Wrapping up like a burrito in case they are COVID positive and we don’t know it.”

Another Family Physician from the North Shore who wished to remain anonymous, said, “right now I am very weary. I am weary of the whole thing, and weary of watching the news and the numbers every day, and weary about wearing personal protective equipment all day long.”

Dr. Bicknell reiterated this, “like most doctors in the hospital, we feel a little burned out and like to take a good vacation (which is hopefully not too far away).”

Helen Zaparniuk, a community health RN on the North Shore, discussed the weight of the pandemic in the community, stating “it has been a very stressful time, with a large increase in the number of clients we see at home and no change in our staffing levels. Also having to navigate the use of PPE (Personal protection equipment) from our personal vehicles is an added challenge.”

Dr. Smiljanic, a Medical Oncologist at LGH, has also found the pandemic challenging, “my type of medicine is oncology, so cancer patients keep coming regardless of the pandemic. It has been quite difficult to keep everyone looked after, keep everyone’s investigations and treatments up-to-date all the while trying to do it virtually as we try not to bring too many patients to hospital for fear of giving them COVID.”

Doctors have had to work very differently due to the pandemic, with more virtual health utilization (by telephone and video), mandatory personal protective equipment, and the need to organise their resources very differently. Dr. Heffner, a Hospitalist at LGH and head of the Medical Staff stated, “it has made me have to become very flexible in how I respond to new medical issues including how I treat patients.”

Dr. Dana Haaf, a Family Physician on the North Shore and Hospitalist said, “it has made my life much busier and changed my practice structure quite a bit. The upheaval in practice was due to patient flow, reliance upon new, unproven (and often unreliable) technologies and new pressures and pathways to deal with patient problems in hospital and nursing homes with virtual care.”

Unfortunately the pandemic has caused some patients to delay being seen for other issues. Dr. Kevin McLeod, an Internal Medicine Physician and the Head of Medicine at LGH, says,”the pandemic has made life very busy and unpredictable. We have had to staff a busy COVID unit at the hospital. Some other things that patients need, not related to COVID are delayed. It’s also been hard seeing the numbers of people get really sick or die from COVID.”

Dr. Robertson said, “a lot of my patients have ignored their medical needs. This makes what I deal with some days much more serious.”

Dr. Jaschinski, a Family Physician and Hospitalist on the Sunshine Coast said, “I am seeing way more anxiety than in the past. People are often leaving things too long before seeking help.”

Due to the hospital being so busy with COVID-19 patients, as well as the increased fear some people have of the hospital, along with other issues, community medicine has become even more busy. Dr. Hughan, a Family Physician and Hospitalist on the North Shore said, ”family practice schedules are overflowing. Most Family Medicine Specialists are seeing 40-50 patients a day both in person or on telehealth, which then engenders a huge amount of work, and many patients are needing home visits to keep them out of the hospital if possible.”

Dr. Walton-Knight also said, “I suspect the demand on Family Medicine has increased by 30%” and also we are, “caring for patients with a new disease that we would not be dealing with 2 years ago.”

Doctors-in-training are also affected: Dr. Boskovic is a first-year resident in Family Medicine and this has been challenging and changed her training experience. She says,“the start of residency is always a big change, and doing so in the context of a pandemic has made this a much bigger jump. Clinics are running differently, there is more telemedicine and an overall difference in terms of learning.”

Some are feeling more optimistic about the light at the end of the tunnel. North Shore paramedic Bart Niko says he feels pretty good 18 months in, stating, “I have both my vaccine doses, I haven’t caught COVID, and I can see an end in sight.”

Dr. Heffner said, voicing all of our hopes, that he is, “feeling more confident as we go into Summer/Fall.”

Check in tomorrow to read PART TWO:

“Out of all the incredible challenges, what was the most challenging moment for you during the pandemic?”

AND

“What would you say to people who are vaccine hesitant?”

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