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The fight to save patients from the coronavirus at Surrey Memorial Hospital

Global's Sarah MacDonald has a rare look inside a B.C. hospital, as its staff struggles to handle the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. – Apr 24, 2020

British Columbia has been in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic for weeks.

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But inside what is typically the province’s busiest emergency department, the silence is striking.

On the front lines, Surrey Memorial Hospital is where many of the region’s most critically-ill COVID-19 patients are fighting to survive.

“The real anxiety for me comes from the unknowns,” Intensive Care Unit department head Dr. Greg Haljan told Global News.

“And it’s not just, ‘is the disease going to come back in the fall?’ Or, ‘will we have a vaccine?’ It’s really, what will the impact on society be?”

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Haljin said everyone is worried about the virus and what can happen. But he is confident they are up for the challenge and can rely on what they have learned about the virus so far.

“The disease starts in the lungs without a doubt,” he said. “But we know in the ICU that it’s not just the infection that harms people, it’s what happens in the blood. If you get an infection that is causing inflammation of the blood, well that blood goes everywhere: the brain, the heart, the kidneys.

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“We’re always concerned about who’s going to have those massive reactions. Defining what and who gets them has been a huge challenge. And figuring out how to treat them has been a big challenge right now. Because it’s about figuring out the body’s reaction to the virus.”

At Surrey Memorial, staff are constantly changing and adapting to the needs and treatment the virus requires.

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“Every pandemic is different based on what kind of pandemic it is,” Dr. Victoria Lee, Fraser Health Authority CEO and president told Global News.

“Every pandemic is different depending on the cause, and then with response — you know, with Ebola, you did know the treatments and the progression of the disease. Compared to SARS at the time, and then COVID-19 now. So, I think that’s why there’s such rapidity of change and information and data.”

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Haljin told Global News, from what he’s seen, dying is not the worst possible thing that can happen to someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

“When somebody requires a ventilator they’re stuck in a bed and they waste away, despite all the things we’re doing for them. Their lungs are injured,” he said.

“So, being young, and getting sick with this, is not a guarantee of doing well. It’s going to be a year-long journey for our young patients, and we have a substantial number of them.”

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He said for those who survive, the biggest challenges are psychological.

“The ventilator’s not harmless,” he said. “We have a big plastic tube that goes through the vocal cords, so they can’t talk. And they choke with every breath. It’s like having food going down the wrong pipe.”

“Oxygen in very high concentrations actually burns the lungs. And at the same time — that old adage, if you don’t use it you lose it. As the ventilator is breathing for a patient, the muscles waste away. It’s like having a cast on your whole body while you’re on a ventilator.”

For patients recovering from COVID-19, of which there have been 1,114 in B.C. so far, the road to getting back to normal is going to be a long one.

For the front-line workers, they are ready if the situation escalates.

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“People talk about extraordinary times,” Lee said. “And we’ve never had this level of measures put in place — in at the community level, societal, or globally. So, it’s a different type of pandemic.”

“We’ve also shown that as a health system we can be more flexible and agile, and adapt. So I think in that regard we’ll be better prepared to adapt to the second wave, if it does come.”


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