It’s been a difficult few weeks. Since mid October we have had three immediate family members in hospital, all at the same time and all in different cities. One is very seriously ill. Another was discharged four days ago and recovering at home after cardiac surgery, and another is now in ambulatory care receiving the interventions she needs to recover from a serious and potentially life-threatening infection.
Coping with the stress of watching family members struggle with acute and chronic illness takes courage, trust, endurance, and a willingness to let go of those things that we simply cannot control. It’s also an experience that virtually all of us will face at some point in our lives. What none of us have had to tackle however, is the stress and fear of simultaneously navigating a health system during a worldwide pandemic. But we are in good company. Let’s not forget that this is also new for those health professionals and support staff who are tasked with caring for our loved ones! There are restrictions that are changing weekly alongside the implementation of new policies, and processes necessary to enable health professionals to function safety and for hospitals to remain open to serve patients, ensuring an adequate response to the strain that COVID-19 is placing on a health system that was already under fire. In 2018, well before COVID-19 added an overwhelming level of complexity and risk to the system, one physician wrote about how health care is analogous to trench warfare in World War I:
“Life in the trenches of contemporary health care can overload the senses and cast a dark shadow on even the most essential features of daily life….It is not uncommon to hear doctors and nurses talk about how their work is sucking the life out of them, rather than building a sense of purpose and fulfillment.”
As our family members continued to receive care, I was faced with stark reminders about our collective role as health system partners in supporting the people whose efforts to battle this invisible and deadly enemy are frankly heroic. Hospital care has always been fast paced, complex, and challenging. However, our clinicians, leaders, and support staff are forced to add additional steps and processes, and face risks that I could not have imagined fitting into my intense workday when I was a clinician. In the days before COVID-19, masks, gloves, shields, and gowns were necessary only in specific situations. Today they are necessary for EVERY situation, with every patient and in every personal encounter. And those ‘addons’ are essential while emergency department visits escalate, ICU beds become more strained, and COVID-19 numbers accelerate daily in Alberta, across the country, and around the world.
March 2020 seems like an eternity ago. I read the reports, monitored the trends across North America and beyond and prayed that the restrictions we all lived with in the spring would help to bring the virus under control. As a health professional and former infection control nurse, I was also aware that our spring surge would likely be a harbinger of another, more lethal wave that would likely descend upon us in the fall. But the spring unfolded, and the summer arrived. Gyms and restaurants re-opened. My hair salon reopened (thank goodness) and let’s face it; we all became a wee bit complacent. My husband and I started shopping more often. We enjoyed restaurant meals occasionally in our effort to support the communities we live and work in. And we felt reasonably safe until three weeks ago when I spoke with a physician who works in a nearby community. He contracted COVID-19 in the summer. Thankfully he recovered but he cautioned me to be very careful, shaking his head and stressing that “believe me, nobody wants to get this virus.”
Today, more than 8 months after this all began to affect our daily lives, the media is reporting that “more people are now in hospital being treated for COVID-19 in Alberta than ever before.” Today there are more than 200 patients in hospital and more than half of our available ICU beds are currently in use by critically ill COVID-19 patients. And meanwhile, I have three people in my immediate family who continue to rely heavily on a health system under attack. Physicians who understand the risks are raising their voices. More than 70 physicians have recently written to the Premier and the Health Minister, calling for a “sharp 2-week lock down to curb the spread of COVID-19.” These people are the experts. They are warning of catastrophic results if we don’t pay close attention to the rising numbers and act immediately. This strategy is known as a “circuit breaker” which could reduce the sharply rising numbers and allow contract tracers and the system to catch up. A strategy like this is essential to ensure that your family members will be able to count on the system when and if they need it and for my family members to remain both safe and well cared for by health professionals who aren’t exhausted by pressures that nobody should have to cope with.
We are all health system partners. We know that this virus will continue to harm and kill Canadians if we don’t take our own individual responsibilities seriously. So, what can each of us do to help? We can wear the appropriate masks. We can avoid congregate settings as much as possible. We can wash our hands. And we can do everything in our power to keep ourselves healthy by getting immunized for influenza, by eating well, by getting out for walks (socially distant walks), and by making consistent efforts to maintain loving and supportive relationships even if that means using face time, phone calls, or email.
I left the bedside more than 20 years ago. My work in healthcare no longer involves caring directly ‘for’ patients and their family members. My work as a consultant and my role as a citizen (and yours) is to actively engage in being an effective partner. If I expect to be treated as a partner when the health system is responding to MY needs, then at the very least, I should be willing to come alongside the thousands of people who asking us to help meet THEIR needs as they continue to do their best to keep us safe.
There’s no doubt this has been a tough period for everyone. For me and my family, we have a long way to go on our own personal journey with our loved ones as we try our best to support them and to navigate the health system. But before we start making sweeping judgements about how the health systems in our province and our country are responding to this pandemic, let’s think long and hard about how each of us is responding and whether we’ve chosen to be part of the problem or part of the solution. The time will come where we will have the right and the responsibility to explore system defects and contribute toward finding solutions. Today however it’s time to do what we can to fill the gaps in our own lives and across our social networks. We can alter our day to day patterns, care for ourselves, and come alongside the system as true partners when they need us the most. My hope is that all of you remain well as the autumn and winter unfolds. Let me know how you’re doing and what you’re doing to keep yourselves and others safe! It matters. It matters to all of us that we all ‘care’ for one another.
 Gunderman, R. The 100th Anniversary of WWI’s end, lessons on life in health care’s trenches. The Conversation. November 8, 2018. https://theconversation.com/on-the-100th-anniversary-of-wwis-end-lessons-on-life-in-health-cares-trenches-106401
 CBC News, Edmonton. November 11, 2020 @ 4:00 pm.