COVID-19 is 'not a joke': ICU staff at Cambridge Memorial Hospital brace for surge in patients

As hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions rise in Ontario's Waterloo region, one local ICU manager lives in fear of the day local resources simply run out.

Nurses from other areas of hospital pulled to help fight COVID-19 'monster,' says intensive-care manager

'I am very afraid,' says Cambridge ICU manager

1 year ago
Duration 1:26
April McCulloch, ICU clinical manager at Cambridge Memorial Hospital, worries about the possibility of having to tell patients' families that there are no beds or ventilators available.

As hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions rise in Waterloo region, the ICU manager at Cambridge Memorial Hospital lives in fear of the day local resources simply run out.

"I am very afraid of when we have to start telling families that there's nothing we can do, and we can't help them, because we don't have a bed, we don't have a ventilator," said April McCulloch, clinical manager at Ontario's Cambridge Memorial Hospital ICU.

"My staff are tired … They're afraid, because we just don't know if we're going to be able to do what we need to do."

Local hospitals began accepting patients from outside the region last week. As of Monday afternoon, 39 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Waterloo region. Cambridge Memorial Hospital had 13 COVID-19 patients in its medicine unit and eight in its ICU Monday.

Critical-care beds added

To cope with the influx of patients, the hospital has added new critical-care beds. While space is still available, it grows tighter by the day, said hospital spokesperson Stephan Beckhoff. 

ICU nurse Joanna Poweska says patients are showing up in the ICU sicker and in worse shape than ever before, and that COVID-19 is 'not a joke.' (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

To staff those beds, Cambridge Memorial Hospital plans to pull nurses from other areas of the hospital.

This week, operating room nurses, freed up by the province's direction to ramp down non-emergency surgeries and procedures, will receive a one-day orientation to critical care. They will work in the ICU under direction from critical-care nurses. 

"Ultimately, we know they're not going to be able to … do what a critical-care nurse does," said McCulloch, who is an ICU nurse by training.

"But in the absence of anything else, this is what we have to move toward."

ICU nurse Joanna Poweska worries about the lack of specially trained staff. During the third wave, COVID-19 patients have become sicker. Many have to be medicated so they can be put in a prone position and not fight being hooked to their ventilator, she said.

"It takes a lot of training to look after these patients," said Poweska. "Throwing in a nurse who's never had any critical-care experience, that's a frightening thing."

ICU staff want COVID-19 taken seriously

Despite the grim headlines, the ICU staff said they're worried some people aren't taking COVID-19 seriously.

"It's not a joke," said Poweska. "When we have over 600 patients taking up ICU beds in Ontario, that's a huge number for one certain diagnosis." 

'People need to take this seriously,' says Cambridge ICU doctor

1 year ago
Duration 0:42
Dr. Jonathan Marhong says COVID-19 variants mean younger, sicker patients showing up at Cambridge Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Jonathan Marhong, medical director of quality and patient safety, said he continues to see patients who've fallen ill after attending social gatherings.   

"I want [people] to know that the horrors that my team and I go through every day can become their horrors in an instant," said Marhong.

"I'm not trying to spoil anybody's fun. I have no reason to lie or be dishonest. I'm just a guy trying to do his part during the pandemic."

'This disease is a monster'

McCulloch described COVID-19 as "a monster" that does not just affect a person's lungs. 

"It affects your heart. It affects your kidneys. It affects your liver. And some of our patients could be here for months and months before they're even able to think about going home," she said.

Deanne Mullins is the professional practice lead of the respiratory practice department at Cambridge Memorial Hospital. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Patients on a ventilator will have a long road ahead, even when they do recover, said respiratory therapist Deanne Mullis.

It will take work to get back on their feet and to regain strength in their arms, she said.

"This is life changing for them," she said.

Despite their challenging circumstances, the ICU staff who spoke to CBC News said they have confidence in one another. They urged people outside the hospital to continue following public health guidelines, get vaccinated and stay home when sick. 

For now, though, they worry: about passing the virus on to their families and the damage that could be done in the final leg of the pandemic. 

"At the end of it all, what is going to be the final price that's been paid?" said McCulloch.