Exhaustion and cautious optimism: On the front lines at B.C.’s busiest COVID-19 ICU

Click to play video: 'Surrey Memorial offers up a rare look inside Intensive Care' Surrey Memorial offers up a rare look inside Intensive Care
The number of people in B.C.'s intensive care units due to COVID-19 has been dropping, giving the people who work there a much-needed breather. Neetu Garcha takes us inside Surrey Memorial Hospital for a look at the ongoing devastation the pandemic is having on patients, their families, and the people who work there – Jun 4, 2021

Amid rising vaccination numbers, pressure on British Columbia’s hospitals has begun to ease off.

But at Surrey Memorial Hospital, exhausted staff in the critical care unit aren’t ready to breathe a sigh of relief.

As the primary hospital for nearly a million people in the Lower Mainland and located in one of the province’s COVID-19 hotspots, Surrey Memorial is where nearly half of all B.C.’s critically ill COVID-19 patients are treated.

Read more: B.C. holds new COVID-19 cases under 200 for 4th day, reports 1 death

At the height of the pandemic, the unit was treating more than 60 COVID-19 patients at once.

Global News visited the ICU on Friday and spoke with front-line staff, who say they’re cautiously optimistic about the direction the province is moving in, but still anxious after more than 18 months of battling the worst of the virus.

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Click to play video: 'Surrey, B.C. teacher shares ICU battle with COVID-19' Surrey, B.C. teacher shares ICU battle with COVID-19
Surrey, B.C. teacher shares ICU battle with COVID-19 – Nov 28, 2020

“It’s nothing that I imagined I would go through when I graduated six years ago,” intensive care nurse Majot Kaur told Global News.

While stress and fatigue are daily companions, for Kaur the hardest part of the job has been working with critically ill patients isolated from their friends and family by pandemic regulations.

“We know it’s real and how devastating it can be to families,” she said.

Read more: B.C. 19-year-old hospitalized with rare COVID-linked syndrome usually found in kids

“A lot of patients, we’re the last face they see before being put on ventilators so kind of a huge sense of responsibility … they’re in your care, in your hands.”

ICU nurse Mackie Wiebe recently transferred off the hospital’s COVID floor after learning she was pregnant.

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There were shifts in the unit during the pandemic she says will stay with her for a long time.

“I just remember having one day where I had two patients that were both on life support — one patient was palliating, we knew he was going to pass away, another patient was crashing,” she said.

“Obviously I can’t be in both places at once, so you get pulled into the person you’re trying to save, and that means someone ends up passing by themselves … it’s just heartbreaking knowing that people are dying alone.”

On Friday, B.C. health officials reported that the number of patients in the province’s ICUs fell to 59, one third of the number at the peak of the third wave in May and the lowest they have been since November, 2020.

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Dr. Greg Haljan, department head for critical care at Surrey Memorial, said while he was buoyed by that trend, the hospital continues to plan for the possibility of a fourth wave.

Click to play video: 'Baby delivered by C-section while mom in ICU with COVID-19' Baby delivered by C-section while mom in ICU with COVID-19
Baby delivered by C-section while mom in ICU with COVID-19 – Nov 14, 2020

“I’m encouraged but I don’t think we can let our guard down,” he said.

Read more: As COVID-19 variants spread in B.C., concern grows for effects on younger adults

“We’ve seen time and time again these lulls, and we all get our hops up, we let our guard down and we find ourselves in another wave. The virus isn’t gone. It’s still producing variants of concern.”

Haljan said every wave of the pandemic has been tougher for the last for his hospital, which has operated well beyond capacity for the past 15 months.

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Capacity, he stressed, isn’t about ventilators or beds, but about people.

“And our people are tired,” he said.

Successfully preparing for the next wave or the next pandemic, he said, will depend in large part on listening to the needs and the experiences of those on the front lines.

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