The Current

Meditation is helping this ER doctor cope with the rising stress of fighting COVID-19

Dr. James Maskalyk — a Toronto ER doctor fresh off the night shift — shares how he uses meditation to cope with the scariest risks that come with his job.

Dr. James Maskalyk says meditation has helped him treat patients more effectively

Dr. James Maskalyk, left, says he and his team at a Toronto hospital ER are preparing for an increase in cases of COVID-19. Right, Dr. Maskalyk testing the protective gear he'll wear while treating patients. (Michael Banasiak; Submitted by Dr. James Maskalyk)
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An ER doctor is using meditation (and helping others to do the same) as a way to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Last night there was a man who came in and he was a very angry person, sadly," said Dr. James Maskalyk, who spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway as he came off shift at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

"He was abusive to the nurses, and … to me, and the security guards," he said

Maskalyk said it would be easy to get angry with the man's behaviour, but that regular mediation has given him the tools to assess the situation differently. 

"What I couldn't help but see is that he's just a little boy — someone hurt him when he was a little boy, and he doesn't feel like he is safe, to let love in," he said.

He first started to practice mediation 10 years ago, when he returned to Canada from working abroad with Doctors without Borders. He wrote the book Six Months In Sudan about that experience, and is also the author of Life on the Ground Floor, a book about ER medicine.

During the pandemic he has started to lead live meditation sessions on his personal Facebook page, to help others deal with the uncertainty.

"It gives you space when you thought there was none," he told Galloway. 

"As you practise, as your meditation deepens in time and commitment, then you carry that space around you in more and more situations," he said. 

"When that person yelled at you in the ER that you're a goof or whatever it is, you say: 'Sir, I'm so ready to help you, if this isn't the time for you, you come back,'" he said.

"And you leave that experience with none of the automatic kind of taint that may have followed you out of it previously."

Dr. James Maskalyk, ER doctor and meditation teacher, guides us through a breathing and mindfulness exercise. (Photo by James Maskalyk) 2:30

ER holding its breath: doctor

As of lunchtime Wednesday, there are 3,281 cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with much of the country limiting social contact in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.

Maskalyk said his team is holding a "half breath" as the cases continue to rise, and concerns linger about whether Canada's hospital services will be overwhelmed.

"We think we're prepared — we have no idea what the reality is going to be," he said. 

"So we're just looking to each other for cues about how to stay focused and present and really in this job, because people really, really need it."

Staff at the Ottawa Hospital took part in a simulation drill Friday to practice the intubation and care of COVID-19 patients who develop severe breathing problems. Glen Posner, medical director of the simulation patient safety program, and David Gruber, emergency room physician, spoke to CBC News. 2:21

Meditation helps him to cope with those questions, by focusing on the present, and the idea that when we stop worrying about the future and the past, "we already know everything that we need to know, about getting what we need." 

"It's allowed me to give medicine from a different way, with kindness," he said.

He said it has helped him to understand the decisions he makes for patients, and help them to understand the complexity of the choices.

"When you're explaining to someone why maybe you can't test them for COVID-19, they feel it a little bit, that you actually care for them," he said.

"It just makes your medicine that much more effective."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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