“Critical illness doesn’t wait for the holidays”
This Christmas, Jason Morell won’t be woken up by his twin sons’ excitement to open gifts, by carols, or by his wife of nearly 25 years, Laura Ruppel, greeting him with a “Merry Christmas.” Morell will be awakened—likely throughout the night—by the beeping of machines helping to support him and fellow HSC Winnipeg patients, by moans of agony from adjacent beds, and by a symphony of hazy announcements on the hospital’s intercom.
Nobody wants to wake up in a hospital bed—especially on Christmas. Unfortunately, this is the reality this year for Morell, a 49-year-old grain farmer, and many others.
Morell fell ill, literally collapsing, with what he initially thought was a bad flu late this past spring. He received care at two other hospitals before being transferred to HSC due to the complexity of his circumstance, a grueling, severe case of pancreatitis.
“One doctor told me ‘This is going to be a rollercoaster. Strap in. Be prepared for lots of ups and downs’—he was right,” says Ruppel.
In Morell’s over six-month stay at HSC, he has been moved to numerous areas of the hospital—including two intensive care units—due to the complexity of his condition and the fact that HSC has had to reconfigure spaces in response to the growing number of COVID-19-positive patients.
Prior to the pandemic, there were 39 ICU beds at HSC. Now, with the repurposing of other spaces in the hospital, there are 65 beds.
Like Morell, HSC’s Surgical Intensive Care Unit Medical Director, Dr. Faisal Siddiqui, won’t be home for Christmas. “We are business as usual on Christmas—critical illness doesn’t wait for the holidays,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
For Dr. Siddiqui and many other ICU health care practitioners, this Christmas will pose an additional layer of strain.
“When COVID-19 hit, the sheer volume of patients increased incredibly quickly, as well as the concern that we have for our colleagues and the risks that a new disease brought to our current system. We have all these diseases that would typically cause people in ICU to need life support, and now we have this new group of patients who need just as much attention—perhaps even more,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
Not only are those inside HSC feeling the strain, those outside are, too.
“Due to visitor restrictions, we communicate with patients’ loved ones over the phone and video conferencing,” notes Dr. Siddiqui. “It is absolutely horrible having serious, life-defining conversations over the phone.”
COVID-19 has completely altered the way we operate—both outside and inside of hospitals. “If a patient has an infection, we give them antibiotics. If a patient has issues with their appendix, we take it out. This is a new disease that brought people’s lives to a screeching halt and we had no treatment other than machines that simply keep the patient alive while we hope they recover on their own,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
This Christmas, about half of the ICU beds will be used by COVID-19-positive patients. “There is a strong sense of responsibility and anxiety among ICU staff as we wonder if today will be the day that we bring the virus home to our families. Some days, that type of stress is palpable,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
With expanding HSC’s ICU, comes the need to outfit nearly 30 additional hospital beds. “There were no bedside carts, no monitors, no computers, no infrastructure. We can’t simply borrow from elsewhere. HSC Foundation donors have made some purchases possible already, but there is still more to do. I treat every patient as I would my own family—I want the right equipment and supplies. When donors support the HSC Foundation, they enable me to do that.”
Thankfully, HSC Foundation donors have majorly stepped up to help those on the frontline—but the fight is far from over. The fight is far from over for Morell; for the overflowing ICU; for the many, many Manitobans who are wishing their loved one was home for Christmas.
This Christmas, please consider making a gift here to our COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund as we continue to fight for those under HSC’s roof. This Christmas, please listen to public health orders and stop the spread of COVID-19. “What’s really scary, is what may happen after Christmas if people still gather,” notes Dr. Siddiqui.
By Natasha Havrilenko