‘My stomach dropped’ Ottawa nurses react to COVID ICU deployment

OTTAWA — Odelia Scher is no stranger to the intensive care unit at the Queensway Carleton Hospital.

Walking into the COVID unit at the hospital in Ottawa’s west end for the first time, she was taken aback. 

“I hadn’t been to the COVID unit or the COVID ICU at all and when I walked in and saw the environment, it was a lot to take in,” Scher said. 

Scher spent one year in the intensive care unit at the Queensway Carleton Hospital before moving to a different specialization.

Last week, she was called back to critical care.  

“My stomach just kind of dropped a little bit,” Scher said. 

“Having been in an ICU before, we had vented patients before. I would say at one time when it’s really busy we had three patients on a vent, four patients on a vent. The COVID ICU is almost solely vented patients,” she added.  

The young mother is one of many nurses being redeployed across Ottawa, part of a strategy to manage increases in ICU’s throughout Ontario. 

“I’ve only been back for two shifts and out of those two shifts, I’ve had one patient die,” said Christie Cowan, another redeployed ICU nurse. 

Cowan was moved to the COVID ICU at The Ottawa Hospital last week. A 12-year nursing veteran, she says the pandemic has created a situation unlike anything she’s experienced before. 

“There is an unknown factor to it; How bad is it going to get? When is it going to get back?  There’s a lot of unknowns to it, so you just have to walk in that day and do your best,” Cowan said.  

Both Cowan and Scher say they’re proud to be doing their part to fight the virus, but it comes at a cost. 

“Going to work and knowing you’re going to be exposed to COVID and come home and bring that…god forbid, you could potentially bring that to your family. It’s a stressful feeling,” Scher said.  

Currently, Ottawa has more than 100 COVID patients in hospitals across the city. Just under a third are receiving critical care. 

“We’re roughly looking at about 50 per cent of occupancy is related to COVID, if not higher, in the ICU’s but we’re prepared to go significantly higher,” said Dr. Dave Neilipovitz, the head of Critical Care at The Ottawa Hospital. 

Across the city, the Montfort Hospital says eight of the 11 patients in their ICU have COVID-19. 

At the Queensway Carleton Hospital, 12 of the 34 COVID-19 patients are also receiving critical care; they’ve even opened up temporary surge space to help with ICU capacity. 

Ottawa Public Health is reporting 27 people in ICU’s across the city. 

Cowan says the number of patients being treated came as a shock.

“It is scary caring for people who are so, so sick and have been previously healthy. The population is younger, the acuity is higher, and the amount of patients we have to is also increasing quite quickly,” she said. 

The influx of patients from Southern Ontario only adds to the pressure. 

“Everyday you never know what you’re getting. Currently we’re getting patients from other cities which has been putting a lot of pressure on our units as well, and you know they’re tired – they’re really tired – and they just want this to be over,” Scher said. 

Although the pair just started in the ICU, they can see the toll it’s taking on those who have spent the past year caring for the most ill. 

“I see them tired, I see them fatigued, I see them frustrated,” Cowan said. 

The duo are pleading with Ottawa residents to follow public health advice, warning that although they’re able to manage the case loads now, that may not always be the case. 

“There’s only so much we can do if we don’t have your help, because at a certain point there’s not going to be any more hands to pull from a different unit. There’s not going to be the resources, and if you get sick we want to be able to give you the care that you would want,” Scher said.  

Despite the exhaustion, Cowan says those in the ICU are doing their best, adding every patient is given the best care possible. 

“(The doctors and nurses) care, no matter how tired they are, they care,” Cowan said.

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