As COVID-19 crisis intensifies, Calgary man with cancer fears dying alone

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With Alberta hospitals under enormous stress and pressure, and many implementing visitor restrictions due to outbreaks, people reliant on the health care system are beyond anxious. As Jill Croteau reports, the fear is reaching heartbreaking heights – Dec 4, 2020

Ian Robinson knows he’s living on borrowed time. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2016.

“I’m a successful fugitive from the law of averages right now,” Robinson told Global News Friday.

He said his cancer diagnosis “closed in” his entire world and now, COVID-19 has virtually stopped his life.

Read more: Alberta’s COVID-19 positivity rate rises to 10.5%; health system under ‘enormous strain’

“I rebuilt something that looked like a life and COVID came along and just narrowed it right back down again,” Robinson said.

“I’m trapped in my house for most of my life now and that’s sorrowful.”

He said he felt cheated by COVID, which took away his ability to fulfill a bucket list.

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“I can’t travel. I did hold my wife’s hand on a river boat in Burgundy, I lit a candle to a saint in Notre Dame, I stood in Shakespeare’s boyhood bedroom,” Robinson said.

“But I wanted to see the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum and eat my way through Tuscany, I had a lot of plans.”

Read more: 40-year-old Edmonton man documents his heartbreaking decline before COVID-19 took his life

Robinson said virtual visits with support groups like Wellspring have been a lifeline, but he’s scared of what’s to come.

He needs to go to hospitals and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre for treatments and care often, and visitor restrictions due to outbreaks mean his family can’t be with him.

Ian with his wife Kathleen and children Jill and Jake. Courtesy: Ian Robinson

The pandemic has also forced upon him a reality of possibly not having his family by his side during his final moments. He talked about what he thinks of when his son, Jake, comes to mind.

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“The first thing I thought of is: I taught him everything I know, I guess the last thing I can do is show him how to die,” he said.

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“But it never occurred to me, if I would live in a pandemic, my greatest fear would be dying alone.”

‘The physical footprint is only so big’

Dr. Kirsten Fiest works at the Foothills Hospital in critical care medicine. She said the reality of people suffering in hospital without family by their side is heartbreaking for everyone.

“We are at that point — people might be dying alone, with only health care team around them, [and] if the health care team has the capacity and isn’t treating other highly ill people, they might be able to provide an iPad,” Fiest said. “It’s just horrible for everyone involved.”

Fiest said other areas of the hospital are having to be converted into ICU units.

“I was scared when there was 30 ICU cases and we are tripled, coming in at 100,” she said.

“We are looking to expand beyond the traditional ICU footprint. Operating rooms and different places traditionally not used as ICU beds are having to be pulled in and outfitted with the technology that would allow patients to be cared for in a different environment because the physical footprint is only so big,” Dr. Fiest said.

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Read more: Alberta nurse practitioner describes ICU during pandemic: ‘We’re feeling a bit defeated’

Even with the caring touch of a nurse, Robinson said there is no way to reconcile coming to terms with those final moments without “your people” by your side.

“I never thought I would have to be in there with a nurse who couldn’t hold my hand,” Robinson said.

“Can you imagine the last human touch you feel is latex? It’s beyond belief.”

Nurses are getting overwhelmed with the situation, according to United Nurses of Alberta vice-president Cameron Westhead, who said staffing ratios are a growing concern.

“We were short-staffed before the pandemic began,” Westhead said.

“When you increase the number of patients, but staff remains the same, the care gets diluted,” Westhead said.

Read more: Increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alberta pushing ICUs to 90% capacity

An Alberta Health Services statement confirmed over the next days and weeks, staff will be adding acute care beds and ICU beds in Alberta hospitals, specifically for patients with COVID-19.

AHS said it is using four main strategies to create additional capacity:

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  1. Transferring patients out of acute care who no longer need to be in hospital (some will be discharged, others will go to vacant or new community continuing care beds)
  2. Moving patients to beds across the province temporarily, until beds open up close to home
  3. Opening closed units, repurposing decommissioned space, opening temporary wards and using areas like children’s hospital spaces, the Peter Lougheed Centre field hospital, or other facilities
  4. Reducing ambulatory care and surgery to reduce non COVID-19 bed need and staffing need

“We know this may cause concern but we are working to minimize any disruption to patients. These are extraordinary times, and we are simply unable to provide health care the way we usually do,” AHS said.

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