Fear and Hope in the ICU

By Dr. Chris O’Connor, President & Founder of Think Research, and ICU Physician at Trillium Health Partners

It’s been three weeks since my last shift in the ICU.

Three weeks and a lifetime.

Over the last 21 days, the world has changed. I have watched and worried while the spread of COVID-19 has brought hospitals in Italy, Spain and New York City to their knees as they bravely try to care for patients being admitted in overwhelming numbers. Like everyone, I have been glued to the news. I have seen the deadly impact of this disease on people of all ages. I know it has taken a particularly brutal toll on my healthcare colleagues.

So today my familiar routine felt different by every measure.

The little things like packing my lunch rather than eating in the hospital food court and risking exposure. The eerily quiet 6 a.m. drive along the QEW Highway to the hospital. The personal protective equipment that greeted me at the ICU. 

I’m grateful for the masks, the gowns, the gloves, the goggles. I am keenly aware of how precious they are. They are our thin line of defense. And you can’t mess up. “Donning” and “doffing” protective gear is not a new routine but it’s taken on a new sense of urgency for me given the infectiousness of this virus. Get the order right, roll off the gloves just so, don’t let them snap. In the wake of SARS, public health officials determined one of the greatest risks of exposure is when you take off your PPE. It makes me think of the gripping documentary ‘Free Solo’ that follows the journey of a climber scaling El Capitan with no ropes. You only slip once.

There are a handful of COVID patients at the hospital. I treated one today. Middle-aged. Otherwise healthy. Admitted to hospital yesterday and now on a ventilator struggling to breathe. This is likely just the beginning and we are preparing for a wave of new cases to arrive soon.

In the ICU we deal with tragedy and death everyday. But there’s something about the insidiousness of this virus that makes it feel most unfair. With no visitors allowed at the hospitals, people are very sick — and alone.

I am in awe of my colleagues. The nurses, the respiratory therapists, the hospital attendants. You see at a time like this, they’re showing up. Everybody steps up, at great personal risk, and it is really remarkable. 

Someone asked me today what’s my biggest fear and my biggest hope going into these crucial next few weeks. 

I’ll be honest. I am scared of catching the virus. I’m scared of my colleagues getting sick. I’m scared our hospitals will be overwhelmed. And I think it’s OK to be scared.

But I ask myself, “Could I live with myself if I was the person who walked away?” And the answer is no. There is no way I could do that. I think my colleagues feel the same. We are trained to do this and you do have to do it. 

My biggest hope is that the sacrifices we are all making will pay off. You staying home. Me and all of the other healthcare workers and essential workers going in and doing our jobs. We’re all in this together. I have to hope that if everybody takes their role seriously, we will be better off.