“The crisis is real. The crisis is here at Simcoe-Muskoka.”
Janice Skot, president and CEO of Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH), opened a news conference on April 28 with those chilling words to caution the public about the very real danger of the global pandemic on our doorsteps.
“Today, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre is caring for 32 COVID-19 patients, with 12 in critical care and nine ... breathing through a ventilator,” she said. “To put that in perspective, six weeks ago, we had a total of three COVID patients and one in ICU. That’s how fast the situation worsened.”
Skot — along with Dr. Christopher Martin, RVH’s chief and medical director of critical care; Lauren Gallagher, an RN in RVH’s intensive care unit; and Stella Johnson, the emergency department’s operations director — participated in a video conference to issue a dire warning to Barrie and area residents to maintain their vigilance during the third wave of the deadly pandemic.
As part of its share of the co-ordinated provincial response, RVH has hired 16 home-care workers and invited more than 45 final-year health-care students, comprised of physicians, paramedics and respiratory therapists, to assist.
“The situation is that dire,” Skot said.
To ensure it has enough beds, RVH has had to transfer 50 patients to other hospitals in the region, some as far away as Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and Owen Sound, as well as to an overflow unit in the Toronto Congress Centre run by Toronto Grace Health Centre.
The province could see up to 2,000 patients in intensive care units in the coming weeks, said Skot.
“The impact of wave three has been described as an inferno, catastrophic and a nightmare. And those descriptors aren’t hyperbole. The current reality is all those things and more,” she said. “If there was a time to double down on safety measures, this is it.”
Inside the hospital, staff are feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending arrival of virus-ridden patients.
An ICU nurse for the past six years, Lauren Gallagher said she has lived through the hardest year of her career.
And she’s eight months pregnant.
She said the first and second waves of COVID-19 were full of fear of the unknown, along with concern over how long it would last and how virulent it would become.
“A year later, we’re at the breaking point," said Gallagher. "We’ve been working, running around with double the patients we’ve ever had before. The nurse-to-patient ratio is overwhelming us.”
Ever the caregiver, Gallagher — now on maternity leave — worries about her patients and how it must feel to be one.
“From hearing about COVID for a year, finally getting that diagnosis and then being in hospital. I can’t imagine the fear,” she said. “And then, becoming more and more short of breath, requiring ICU admission, seeing faceless nurses with masks on … They don’t know what the other side of it is, and we honestly don’t know, either.
“We’re emotionally exhausted.”
While concerns about catching the virus may have lessened once emergency care workers were given the go-ahead to get vaccinated on New Year’s Eve, the fatigue and concern about community safety is rising.
Martin, an emergency unit and ICU doctor, said that although he’s mentally and physically exhausted, he’s also proud of his workmates.
“We’ve stepped up like I couldn’t imagine," he said. "We’ve had great leadership, great people volunteering, and we’ve shown we can step up and hit above our weight class. (Now we’re) trying to see if we can maintain this level and see if we can prepare for more patients. So we’re making sure we can manage both the capacity locally, continue helping out provincially, and can do that on a prolonged basis.”
Cheryl Browne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Barrie Advance