Radio·Personal Essay

I'm an ER doctor, and contracting COVID-19 has made me optimistic about the future of medicine

Dr. Joseph Finkler, an emergency physician in Vancouver, contracted COVID-19 in the early days of the lockdown. He says getting to witness the response to the coronavirus from inside the hospital system has given him a unique perspective on the pandemic.

Dr. Joseph Finkler says his hospital rallied together in the face of the pandemic

Dr. Joseph Finkler, an emergency physician in Vancouver, contracted COVID-19 in the early days of the lockdown. He says getting to witness the response to the coronavirus from inside the hospital system has given him a unique perspective on the pandemic. 5:19

Dr. Joseph Finkler has been an emergency physician at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital in Vancouver for the last 15 years.

When COVID-19 started making its way into Canada, Finkler was on the front line. A few weeks later, the symptoms began — a cough, fatigue, fever and chills.

Witnessing the response to COVID-19 — as a physician and a patient — has given Finkler a unique perspective on the pandemic that leaves him hopeful for the future.

Here is his story, as told to CBC Radio.

Our emergency department is managed chaos. We see lots of people with mental health disorders, with substance use disorders, with poverty.

Then COVID-19 changed everything. 

The hospital underwent a massive transformation for the pandemic. It was amazing, actually. To be honest, I've never seen anything like it.

One of the first things the hospital needed to do was increase its capacity for a possible surge in patients with respiratory illnesses. Long-term care patients were moved out to provide beds for COVID-19 patients. 

There was an increase in personal protective equipment, from masks and gloves to hazmat-like setups. 

People were making huge, huge changes in how things were gonna flow in the department, and it required the cooperation from all levels of medical administration. They were working in unison to get a handle on what was going on.

Dr. Finkler wearing personal protective equipment at work. (Submitted by Joseph Finkler)

They were also scouring the literature and collaborating with people around the world to figure out what were the best practices to invoke to manage people with COVID-19.

Then around the third week of March, I started feeling incredibly fatigued, as if I had a headwind behind me and somebody was pulling me from behind by my coattails or with some sort of a harness.

I attributed this initially to working a long string of night shifts and then changing my time zone to working late afternoons and evenings.

It was actually my grown children that said, "Dad, I think you have COVID-19. You should get tested."

I was hoping I didn't have it. I have never missed an emergency shift because I was sick. The only time I took scheduled time off from the emergency room was when I had joint replacement surgery.

I also didn't want to have to be sidelined and leave my colleagues to have to fill in the gaps from my shifts in this time of need. I think most of our colleagues are pretty hardy, and they'll work through their shifts even if they feel a bit unwell. 

Dr. Finkler with his colleagues at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital in Vancouver. (Submitted by Joseph Finkler)

All of us have this sort of team feeling that we don't want to let our colleagues down and have other people carry an extra burden. I think that's a fairly common sort of philosophy.

After 10 days of self-quarantine, I recovered and headed back to the emergency room.

Because I'm considered immune to COVID-19 — I've actually been tested and developed antibodies for that — I may be able to be the person more involved in those critical procedures where there's aerosolization of the virus and an increased chance of spread.

(Visit CBC News for more information on what we know and don't know about immunity to COVID-19.)

A couple of weeks ago at the hospital, a patient came in  — he was stabbed  — and was initially stable, then he very, very rapidly deteriorated, almost like a hurricane.

I had a gown, a mask, eye shields and gloves, but did not have the full hazardous material suit on, and there was no time to wait.

So they said, "Joe, you go to the head of the bed. You'll be the one managing the airway because there's no time to waste."

We did it real quickly, and luckily, the patient survived.

If we could do this for COVID-19, certainly we can do this for other illnesses like AIDS, diabetes, or cancer.

I'm super proud of our hospital. They've done an amazing job preparing for COVID-19.

It hasn't happened, but if our hospital gets overwhelmed with this pandemic, it won't be because people didn't try their hardest and use the best policies and practices.

What the pandemic has shown us is that people can lock arms and work together and put aside any grudges or any egos.

If we could do this for COVID-19, certainly we can do this for other illnesses like AIDS, diabetes, or cancer. 

I think that there may be a better environment for collaboration in the future — sharing best practices and knowledge across all different sorts of platforms. So I'm actually quite optimistic.


This Happened to Me: COVID-19 is a video series from CBC Radio featuring the stories of Canadians who have battled the coronavirus.

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