'Do not be afraid of going into the hospital,' patient says after elective surgery

Multiple screenings, taped-off waiting room chairs and staff standing a physically-distant two metres away await Hamilton patients as hospitals continue ramping up surgeries.

Hospitals ramping up procedures while taking steps to keep staff and patients safe

Staff at Hamilton Health Sciences don personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Hamilton Health Sciences)

Multiple screenings, taped-off waiting room chairs and staff standing a physically-distant two metres away await Hamilton patients as hospitals continue ramping up surgeries.

Hospital visits today are a different experience compared to pre-pandemic, but Sharon Murphy wants other people seeking care to know there's nothing to be afraid of.

The 57-year-old was among the first to undergo an elective surgery at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton.

She was set to have her knee replacement surgery in late March, but 11 days before it was supposed to happen she was notified all non-essential procedures had been postponed.

It was frustrating. "I was mentally and physically ready," said Murphy.

In anticipation of the surgery, she had attended a handful of physiotherapy appointments, made sure her aging parents would be cared for while she was out of commission and had even bought a recumbent bike to help with recovery.

"Everything was all lined up. And then it got cancelled."

The next few months were a painful waiting game, as the hospitals cleared beds to make room for the anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients.

Then on June 2 she got the call from her doctor's office and the surgery was set for just nine days later.

It was a "big relief, but big stress at the same time in terms of getting prepped for it," said Murphy. "But I was never nervous about the pandemic."

On the morning of her procedure she was dropped off by her husband a few hours early, overnight bag in hand.

"It was like I was going on a trip. I got an all-inclusive bracelet," she joked.

Inside she says staff wearing personal protective equipment took her temperature and the chairs in the waiting room were set up with physical distancing in mind.

Arrows on the floor also helped her navigate the hallways and her procedure and four-day stay in hospital went off without a hitch.

The city's hospitals have worked very hard to make that happen, according to Dr. Stephen Kelly, head of surgery at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and Dr. Anthony Adili, his counterpart at St. Joe's.

Throughout the pandemic hospitals have managed to maintain service levels for cancer surgeries and other urgent care, they said.

Four weeks ago the province gave the hospitals the green light to start adding semi-urgent care and now they're set to begin the next phase of ramping up — both semi-urgent and highly-elective procedures such as shoulder or ear, nose and mouth surgeries.

Virtual visits not going anywhere

One major change patients will notice is the prevalence of virtual care to cut down on foot traffic, said Kelly, who noted HHS has completed more than 25,000 virtual visits since the pandemic began.

That's compared to the 5,000 or so that would have been done over the course of an entire year before COVID-19, added Adili.

"I think may of us are beginning to realize a lot of this will endure beyond the pandemic and it really is a patient-centred way to deliver a lot of the … care we used to force people to come into the hospital for."

Other big changes include multiple layers of screening questions. Prospective patients will be grilled on their symptoms and contact history about two weeks before a procedure, then again a few days before it and, finally, when they come through the hospital doors on the day of their surgery.

"It's the multiple layers that are going to protect the patients, staff and our community," explained Adili.

Sharon Murphy says the hospital visit for her knee replacement was a bit different because of the pandemic, but she wants other patients to know they shouldn't be afraid to seek the care they need. (Supplied by Sharon Murphy)

Those attending hospitals will also be masked when they enter, according to Kelly, and staff are maintaining physical distancing.

Chairs in some areas have been taped off to make sure people don't sit too close together and hospitals are working very hard to schedule visits so that there isn't a build up of patients in waiting rooms.

'Be patient'

While visitors to Hamilton hospitals will notice differences before and after surgery, Adili said the actual surgeries themselves won't be very different.

Both doctors also urged anyone who is unwell to contact their family doctor or surgeon and seek treatment.

That's a message Murphy wanted to share too.

"Do not be afraid of going into the hospital," she said. And, "be patient."

That final note will be important in the weeks to come, said Adili, as hospitals try to find ways to chip into the mountain of postponed procedures amassed during the pandemic.

"I think it's going to be months and months and into a year before we even get close to addressing some of those backlogs.'