COVID-19: Respiratory therapists see ICUs fill up with non-vaccinated patients

“We have to just focus on caring for them and help them get through this to the other side and, ideally, walk out of the hospital,” says Royal Columbian’s Serafina Chau

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During this pandemic, healthcare workers have been on the front lines, lauded as heroes but also targeted by anti-vaccine mandate protesters. Postmedia went behind the scenes and spoke with a range of Fraser Health Authority staff for this five-part series to see how they’re coping. Here is part one:

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If you’ve never had to be intubated, count yourself lucky, Serafina Chau says.

“It is definitely not comfortable,” the veteran respiratory therapist at Royal Columbian Hospital said. “I mean, just imagine.

“Anyone who is intubated needs to be, to some degree, I don’t want to say in an induced coma but they will need medication for anxiety to keep them calm.”

In other words, they’re sedated enough to not yank out the tube, as uncomfortable as it is, as much as it offends your body’s motor reflexes and natural impulses to do just that.

“It’s just like gagging,” Chau said. “It’s not natural, that’s for sure.”

She’s been a respiratory therapist for 17 years and the job came with enough stress even prior to the pandemic.

Patients need to be intubated and hooked up to a ventilator when they are unable to breathe without assistance. So when the virus that causes COVID-19 aggressively targets the respiratory system, some patients need mechanical ventilation to keep their lungs going.

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In what we now look back on as normal times, it was already heartbreaking to see people suffer through intubation : Smokers, people with chronic respiratory illness, patients needing resuscitation or under anesthesia.

Now add COVID-deniers to the list; Chau can only shake her head.

Serafina Chau has been a respiratory therapist for 17 years and said the job came with enough stress even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Serafina Chau has been a respiratory therapist for 17 years and said the job came with enough stress even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by RICHARD LAM /PNG

“Seeing some of the things and hearing some of the things we’re seeing out there these days, I just think ‘Would you rather have a breathing tube?’” she said. “Being on this side of it, being on this side of the fight, I say we’re doing our part, but everyone else has to do their part, too.

“I can understand there are various reasons people wouldn’t want to get vaccinated, but it’s hard from this side of things, seeing all we see, to fathom the idea that someone would rather, you know, that  than get a vaccine.”

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To be clear, neither Chau nor any healthcare workers interviewed for this behind-the-scenes look at hospital caregivers during the pandemic were wagging fingers.

As Chau put it with a slight laugh, if she ate a dozen doughnuts a day, that’s up to her — but she is going to get sick.

“No matter what choices people make, we got into what we do to care for people, whatever it is that gets them in the hospital, judgments aside,” she said.

Unfortunately, not all patients appreciate the graciousness.

One conspiracy theorist in hospital with COVID-19 spit on a colleague of Chau’s; another was livid with caregivers because the virus “doesn’t exist” and apparently was happier in the ‘knowledge’ he had lung cancer instead.

“Ludicrous, right? We’re just gobsmacked,” Chau said. “The majority of the patients we see now are unvaxxed. What’s most heart-wrenching is their families can’t be with them, and the patients who don’t make it. Those are hard.

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“We’ve had patients who wake up and say we’ve been experimenting on them. Not a lot, but I’d say we’re hearing more of those things now from people who chose, for whatever reason, not to be vaccinated and just don’t believe COVID is real.”

Some patients wind up in ICU for 100-plus days, meaning other, non-life-threatening surgeries are postponed until who-knows-when.

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“The ripple effect is heartbreaking, heart surgeries that don’t get done,” Chau said. “That’s harder for me to see.

“Your body, your choice, OK, and you’re in ICU. But it’s the ripple effect I find harder to watch.”

Her phone bings non-stop with notices of extra shifts. Even staff from outside the region have covered shifts in the Fraser Health Authority’s jurisdiction.

Chau and her colleagues have quit watching the news because it would rile them up. The anti-vax protest outside of Vancouver General Hospital in September, “was, for lack of a better term, a big kick in the you-know-where,” she said.

“It’s tiring. It’s frustrating. It’s hard to see that (a minority of) people would rather this happen than to get a vaccine.

“We tell each other it’s just … ,” Chau took a few moments to choose her words, “we have to just focus on caring for them and help them get through this to the other side and, ideally, walk out of the hospital.”

Coming Monday: Part 2, health inspectors

gordmcintyre@postmedia.com

twitter.com/gordmcintyre


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