Hamilton docs describe what it takes to care for a COVID-19 patient in the ICU

ICU doctors in Hamilton offered a grim, but real glimpse into how hospitals are trying to help people survive the third wave of COVID-19.

One ICU doctor from Hamilton held back tears as he described the emotional toll of treating COVID patients

Medical staff members treat a patient suffering from coronavirus in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. Hamilton health leaders discussed the challenges of treating ICU patients. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

When Dr. Sunjay Sharma, the site chief of Hamilton Health Sciences' intensive care unit (ICU), thinks about COVID-19 patients he has treated, one family comes to mind.

"I was involved [with] a patient where the family was split across three different ICUs across the province," he said during a Tuesday press conference.

"It's emotionally very draining for the staff, but more than that, it's very emotionally draining for the family."

Dr. Mark Soth, chief of critical care at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, said it's hard to talk about what the front-line is seeing in ICUs.

"A lot of these patients hit very close to home to us. We see people our own age. We see people that are parents. We see people that look just like our friends, and they're in the ICU dying from this," he said, holding back tears.

"So it's not something we can talk about easily."

The two doctors offered a grim, but real glimpse into how hospitals are trying to help people survive the third wave. They, and other top health-care leaders in Hamilton, spoke about the pandemic Tuesday.

The emotional exhaustion of workers caring for critically ill COVID-19 patients was a frequent topic.

The health-care leaders said 16 ICU patients at St. Joe's have COVID-19, while there are 58 ICU patients in total with the virus across Hamilton, Niagara, Haldimand, Norfolk and Brant.

Both of Hamilton's hospital networks have initiated ICU surge plans as variants of concern continue to run rampant in the community.

Caring for ICU patients is 'emotionally draining'

Soth described the challenge of treating patients fighting the worst symptoms of COVID-19. These patients are in the ICU, intubated, and breathing with the use of ventilators.

First, hospitals are looking for ways to add more beds — which means finding more space and more staff.

"The amount of effort and human resource that goes into looking after these patients is incredible," he said.

But it's also not easy finding staff to provide that help.

A health-care worker cares for a COVID-19 patient in the ICU who is intubated and on a ventilator at the Humber River Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"Adding a bed isn't just about adding a bed. It's about the whole team that supports the care for the patients ... it's about specific skill sets and expertise necessary for that care," Sharma said.

"More than a year into the pandemic, it's starting to take a toll on everyone and the wear is starting to show."

"Usually it would take two nurses and [respiratory therapists] to help look after a patient in the ICU. It takes five to six people to safely turn one of these patients without dislodging their breathing tube," Soth said.

"We would often have a few patients like that ... [now] over half the ICU is like that."

A sixteen-year-old patient suffering from COVID-19 rests after being transferred to an ICU room at the La Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

The workers also have to think about the patient's family, Soth said, who are separated from their loved ones in the hospital.

"It's very emotionally draining."

COVID-19 variants now make up half of the city's new infections, and Soth said the type of patients they see are changing.

"We're now getting into a younger population, both younger and sicker with these variants of concern and we do have more options for treatment, but the mortality for people who end up in the ICU is still one in three."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.