Boxed wine, a good book and a 'sense of purpose': Coping strategies in a pandemic

We check in with an ICU nurse at the Queensway Carleton Hospital, an Ottawa Valley paramedic and a critical/palliative care physician at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals.

We check in with a nurse, a paramedic and a doctor at the forefront of the pandemic response

Dr. Jean-Sébastien Savoyard, left, and Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, right, pore over charts at the Montfort Hospital. (Lucie Boyer)

Boxed wine and Barack Obama are just two of the coping mechanisms front-line health-care workers are turning to during the COVID-19 paramedic. We checked back in with a nurse, a paramedic and an ICU doctor to see how they're faring at work and at home.

The nurse

Nurse Peggy Freemark has been moved from the ER to the ICU as she had feared and predicted. "That's not where I wanted to be at all," she said.

"It's a little scary," she admitted. "There are COVID patients. It's mostly all COVID."

Freemark doesn't have an ICU background, and said "it's not the way I wanted to learn it."

Nurse Peggy Freemark visits with her husband, Mike, via Facetime. Freemark is living temporarily in a house in Kanata to protect her family from COVID-19 exposure. (Theresa Wilson)

Freemark describes COVID-19 patients as "very sick. They're on ventilators." Some patients try to pull at the tubes, "so we sedate them."

She wears a mask four hours at a time. "The minute you put a mask on suddenly your face is really itchy. You want to touch it. If I have to scratch my face I use the end of my pen, and hope it's the right end."

Freemark and her new housemate, a longtime friend and fellow nurse, are getting along well. "We cry a lot. We laugh a lot. We're there for each other. We like our wine when we get home at night." Yes, Freemark buys wine by the box. 

But they have their differences, too. "I like white wine. She's red."

On her day off, Freemark went home to visit her family, including her seven-year-old granddaughter, Ava. They sat out on the front lawn "at least 10 feet apart. And every time Ava would try to get close to me, I'd have to say, 'Back up!' It's hard. Driving away from the house, you get a little teary-eyed."

Freemark enjoys a virtual visit with her granddaughter Ava, 7. (Peggy Freemark)

Freemark, 55, has another adult daughter, Alexandra, who lives not far from the family's Stittsville home. "She's 35 weeks pregnant and I can't see her. She's terrified. I was supposed to be in the delivery room with her, and now that's not going to happen."

Her high point this past week was learning she can handle the ICU. "It made me feel really good to know that I can do  this."

The low point remains the fear. "Did I get anything on me? Am I going to take this home? Am I going to get sick? Am I going to die?"

The paramedic

Renfrew County paramedic Chris Day had a busy week of COVID-19 "interactions." In addition to taking swabs and checking vitals, Day, 44, also visits patients who've already tested positive for COVID-19, but are managing to cope at home.

Day and his team drop off monitoring equipment that keeps track of patients' blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels. "Any time they fall outside of [certain] parameters, we get an alert."

And COVID-19 is ramping up in Renfrew County. "We've had a few more confirmed cases. We're doing more and more swabbing." In response to that added potential exposure, Day has moved into the basement of his house, away from the rest of the family.

Renfrew County paramedic Chris Day is clocking 12-14-hour workdays and has moved into a guest bedroom in his basement to protect his family from possible COVID-19 infection. (Mitch McKenzie)

"So I sleep in the basement. I eat all my meals down there. We put aside one of the bathrooms just for me. It may seem a little extreme at times, but I think it just gives some reassurance and comfort at home."

Day's is a blended family, "so we thought it best that Carson and Amyann go to their mom's and just remain there. Just to reduce their risk of exposure."

Over the weekend, Day was involved with "fulfilling the last wish" of a palliative care patient who did not have COVID-19 but feared going into a locked-down hospital. "We were able to make some phone calls … and work with the county palliative care physician. We were able to grant that wish to be able to die at home surrounded by family."

Day is struggling with an oversaturation of pandemic news. "When you are at work for 12 to 14 hours a day dealing with nothing but COVID-19, It's difficult to switch off."

To unplug, he watches "a mindless movie" or reaches for a book. So what's he reading? Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

The doctor

Kwadwo Kyeremanteng is a critical and palliative care doctor at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals. 

In response to CBC's profile of Kyeremanteng last week, he said many people reached out to him, including "teachers that I haven't heard from for over 30 years," all applauding him for his message of positivity.

He realizes the reaction could have gone the other way. "I knew that was a possibility. Without mincing words, I just didn't care. Because the other side, the message of negativity? It's so powerful, and it's everywhere."

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng demonstrates good handwashing technique at the Montfort Hospital. (Lucie Boyer)

Kyeremanteng, 42, said he sees that tension in Ottawa. "You see somebody on the street, you're already six feet away, 'Oh, should I step back another three feet?' Or, 'How am I appearing in front of our neighbours?' That tension is not necessary. It's not helping anybody."

Kyeremanteng believes he's seeing an upswing in morale at work. "Two weeks ago, nurses were scared. There was no smiling. There was no laughing. There wasn't the same level of camaraderie." But then, "we started to see cases and realized that we are coping. We are able to manage what's coming through the door so far."

So far, but what if things take a turn for the worse?

"Even if the numbers do increase, we know what to expect. We start to see a pattern in how the patients present themselves. We're getting better at diagnosing them. Everything is becoming more comfortable."

Front-line workers are also feeling the love from the community. "You hear communities clapping in the evenings to support staff. People are really appreciative of what we're going through," Kyeremanteng said.

Intensive care physician Kwadwo Kyeremanteng says morale has risen among hospital staff as confidence increases and communities show their support. 0:48

"When you walk through the door and you realize you can deal with this? You feel that purpose. We have this obstacle against us, but our team is strong. The whole country and community is behind us. I'm actually looking forward to going to work, and I know it's risky. But when you feel that sense of purpose going through the door? It's what we got into this for. You feel it, and it's special."

Kyeremanteng, who lost his father a year and a half ago, got a message from an old family friend. "If your dad could see you now, and the work your doing? He would be so proud."

"It stopped me in my tracks. I would be lying to you if it didn't make me well up. I mean, I'm welling up just thinking about it. In that moment I knew we were doing the right thing. Everything we're doing has a purpose and it has meaning.

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