Ottawa doctors describe stress, exhaustion as COVID-19 cases rise

With COVID-19 numbers on the rise again, the scene inside Ottawa's hospitals is becoming increasingly grim. From burnt-out staff to frustrations over vaccine distribution, these doctors give us a glimpse behind the curtain.

Front-line hospital staff feeling burnt out, but say they're ready for what's coming

A health-care worker wearing PPE transports a patient in a Toronto hospital. In Ottawa, COVID-19 numbers are rising, but haven't yet overwhelmed local hospitals, doctors say. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

With COVID-19 numbers on the rise again, the scene inside Ottawa's hospitals is becoming increasingly grim.

As of Wednesday, 33 patients were receiving treatment for COVID-19 in the city's hospitals, nearly half of them in intensive care.

From exhausted staff to frustrations over vaccine distribution, these doctors give us a glimpse behind the curtain.

'It's only a matter of time' 

Dr. Bhaskar Gopalan, chief of emergency at the Queensway Carleton Hospital, said the QCH is doing "reasonably better" than other medical centres in COVID-19 hotspots. As of Wednesday, the hospital had just three COVID-19 patients.

"It's not a lot," said Gopalan.

It's just an ongoing preparation for what is potentially the biggest surge.- Dr. Bhaskar Gopalan, Queensway Carleton Hospital

But while the hospital is currently in a good place in terms of capacity, he said front-line personnel from doctors to cleaning staff are nevertheless struggling with the relentlessness of the pandemic.

"It's taken its toll. A lot of our front-line workers are really definitely feeling some burnout," Gopalan said. "They've been at this game for 10 months straight with no relief or breaks."

Watching the daily case numbers rise over the past few weeks, Gopalan says he's concerned.

"It's only a matter of time," he said. "We could see another spike again."

Emergency physician Dr. Bhaskar Gopalan says the Queensway Carleton Hospital is preparing for 'what is potentially the biggest surge' to come. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

The hospital has added capacity and is converting a hotel in Kanata into a 28-bed facility for patients waiting for spaces to open up in local nursing homes, Gopalan said. In light of Ontario's latest projections, the Queensway Carleton is also getting a secondary ICU ready.

"It's just an ongoing preparation for what is potentially the biggest surge," Gopalan said. "But this one seems a little bit more concerning because of the new [COVID-19 variant]." 

Concerning, yes, but Gopalan vowed the hospital will be prepared for what's coming.

"While it's concerning, I want to reassure people that we as a hospital are ready." 

All quiet on the ER front

Dr. Lisa Fischer, who works at The Ottawa Hospital's General and Civic campuses in emergency and palliative care, is also concerned, but for a different reason.

"I'm actually worried that it's a little bit quiet in the emergency department," she said, recalling how people hunkered down during the first wave and put off seeking medical help until later. Sometimes too late.

"If people came earlier we could have offered ... earlier care and maybe prevent some harm."

Fischer sees COVID-19 patients every day, and that's taking a toll on her.

Dr. Lisa Fischer, who's involved in dealing with patient complaints, said complaints from hospital staff 'has sadly increased' during the pandemic. (Submitted by Lisa Fischer)

"I'm not gonna lie, it's a bit exhausting," she said. "When I leave work and I can't find my car in the parking lot, that's when I know when my mental capacity has reached its max."

Fischer, who's involved in dealing with patient complaints, said while those have decreased recently, complaints from hospital staff are on the rise.

"There's a lot of impatience and sometimes frustration among [workers]," she said. "It's another warning sign for burnout."

But Fischer wants to reassure people that despite exhausted and frustrated staff, her team is ready to help. 

"Even if you went on a Caribbean cruise and maybe you regret that ... and [are] feeling sick, please do come in," she said.

The unit that stayed COVID-19-free

Dr. Allen Huang, head of geriatric medicine at the University of Ottawa and the Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital, says his 24-bed unit has managed to stay COVID-19-free since the pandemic's start. But that's no lucky accident.

"We in fact are very, very careful to screen, and we do not have any COVID-positive patients and we never have," said Huang. "We did not want to expose our vulnerable population to anyone who potentially had COVID."

There have been times since the pandemic began when the Civic was well over capacity. When that happens, the stress from the emergency room can trickle down to the hospital's specialized units, he said.

"[The surges] created a big backlog and stress," he recalled. "What goes on in the rest of the hospital, we feel."

Dr. Allen Huang, head of geriatrics at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus, says while his unit has stayed COVID-19-free, the stress from the hospital's emergency department trickles down to the specialized units. (Submitted by Allen Huang)

Around Christmas and New Year's, the number of COVID-19 patients at the Civic dropped, but it's picking up again. Still, as of Monday, Huang said the Civic's COVID-19 unit is neither overwhelmed nor overrun by patients needing ventilators.

Huang, who's been vaccinating people while waiting for his own COVID-19 shot, said he's noticing a sense of uncertainty, anger and urgency among patients, families and even staff these days. 

"It's everyone," he said. "Because this hope that the vaccine's out there — [they ask], when am I going to get it, and what if I get sick before it? So, fears and anxieties both ways."

With files from Julie Delaney

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