Fear, dread, helplessness: Winnipeg critical care doctor reflects on year of COVID-19

Click to play video: 'One year later, a Winnipeg doctor reflects on COVID-19' One year later, a Winnipeg doctor reflects on COVID-19
The past year has been unlike any other in living memory, says Winnipeg critical care doctor Owen Mooney – Mar 10, 2021

From being overwhelmed with patients to dealing with death daily, doctors in Manitoba have been at the forefront of the battle with COVID-19 for a year now.

They have been months unlike any other for those who are working directly in hospital COVID-19 wards around Winnipeg and who haven’t even had a moment to stop and reflect, said one doctor.

“I haven’t, many of my colleagues haven’t, stopped to think about that yet because we’re still living it every single day and for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Owen Mooney said.

Mooney is an adult critical care doctor in Winnipeg and remembers when the first person tested positive for the coronavirus.

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“It seems like kind of a lifetime ago,” he said. “I remember having this sense of sitting on a beach watching the incoming tsunami that we knew was inevitable.

“You felt kind of helpless just waiting, not knowing what to expect, how many people to expect.”

Manitoba had its first COVID-19 case on March 12 and just two weeks later the first person in the province died from the disease. While the timeline was quick, doctors realized this virus was unlike others.

“With COVID it was clear that basically we were just trying to buy time with people while they recovered… hopefully,” Mooney said.

But time wasn’t always on their side. Unlike many other viral pneumonias Mooney and his colleagues have dealt with over the years, COVID-19 took a stranglehold on many patients.

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“We were concerned initially about the volume of patients, how sick they presented and it was early on it was remarkable to see how quickly people got critically ill and needed intervention,” he said. “That was something we weren’t used to.”

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Manitoba didn’t deal with the major influxes in hospitalizations and deaths many other provinces did throughout the spring and summer. However, when the second wave hit in the fall, it hit hard.

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“It was overwhelming. Those early days in the fall, for me, were some of the worst experiences professionally and personally in my life,” Mooney said.

“We knew it was coming. We were as prepared as we thought we were but trying to prepare for something like this is imperfect.”

The days for health-care workers in the COVID-19 wards are long and the weeks are even longer. Mooney recounts collapsing to the floor at the end of a shift, utterly exhausted after a 12-hour day, and knowing the next day would bring more of the same.

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The days are filled with illness and death beyond what any of these physicians have known before.

“In critical care, a quarter of our patients die, we know that. We are used to dealing with death and dying every day of our professional lives,” he said. “We pride ourselves at recognizing that death is a normal part of our existence and death can be as beautiful as birth.”

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But even for those who know death best and understand it well, it can hit the hardest.

“COVID has robbed us of those times to make death peaceful and not isolated and alone,” Mooney said.

Yet still, doctors and nurses did whatever they could to try to make each person’s passing easier and ensure they had a hand to hold (albeit protected with gloves and personal protective equipment) and weren’t alone.

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“That has been the most difficult part… the dying process when these patients are alone.”

Health-care workers have been putting themselves at risk daily when treating COVID-19-positive patients. While personal protective equipment (PPE) is donned and doffed, and protocols are closely followed, there’s a deep fear for many the virus could be brought home to their families.

“It’s been a constant fear, to be honest with you. I slept on the couch for the better part of three months,” Mooney said. “We have an isolation procedure I go through when I get home. I am constantly worried.”

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During the outbreak in the fall Mooney became ill himself. After testing positive for the virus, his fears became a reality.

“It was humbling for me personally to see how it made me feel and how quickly it caused illness. I had seen it clinically every day but very few times in my career have I seen something just absolutely cut swaths through at-risk patients so quickly.”

It’s because of that experience he has been able to help his patients even more. They share a common bond and he becomes not just a doctor, but a confidant who can help alleviate their fears.

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“Especially young patients, I could see they were terrified and I could hold their hand, wearing appropriate PPE, and let them know I knew what they felt like and how scared they were,” he said.

Mooney has now been fully vaccinated. While grateful and very thankful, he also said it comes with guilt.

“I know that my risk, especially after having COVID, of getting re-infected, especially with severe COVID, was less,” he said. “And knowing my 98-year-old great grandmother would not have gotten the vaccine early on, the fact that I was lower-risk and prioritized, based on my risk at work, I was very humbled by it.”

The world is going to continue to live with the virus for now and the foreseeable future. While there will surely be more tough times ahead, Mooney said what is important is not forgetting where we’ve already been and all the lives we have lost.

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