‘Like a wild roller coaster’: Montreal ICU staff open up about 4th wave challenges


The intensive care unit at the McGill University Health Centre’s Royal Victoria hospital has been a key battleground in Quebec’s fight against COVID-19.

After treating more than 200 COVID patients throughout the pandemic, the fourth wave has brought feelings of frustration.

“The morale has changed for sure since the first wave,” said Dr. Jason Shahin, a respiratory medicine specialist who works in the ICU. “You know, people were very positive (in the first wave). Society was uplifting. So the morale, I think, has gone down a little bit, especially seeing the protests outside the hospitals.”

Global News was granted access to the Royal Vic’s ICU on Wednesday and spoke to three health-care professionals working there.

Shahin says about one-third of ICU beds at the hospital are occupied by COVID patients, and it’s still a constant battle finding space for people coming in with other issues. He says the COVID patients there right now all have something in common.

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“We have around 10, 11 patients right now. They’re all unvaccinated,” he said, adding that the average age of patients is now about 50.

The youngest ICU occupant is just 21 years old.

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“We’re seeing younger a younger generation – in the 20s, 30s, 40-year-olds,” said Michael Zeeman, a respiratory therapist in the ICU. “I’m 31 myself, and it’s difficult to see.”

“I think it’s been hard emotionally to see people my age or even younger than myself be intubated here in the ICU,” said Melissa Wood, an ICU nurse in her 30s.

Shahin said some patients express regret about not having been vaccinated before they are intubated and hooked up to a respirator, or when they’re having trouble breathing because of COVID-19.

“We’ve had a lot of deaths and we’ve had a lot of young patients die, and it’s frankly hard to see these people die knowing that it could possibly have been averted,” he said.

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Wood said though ICU patients are primarily unvaccinated people, she shows no judgment to patients for their vaccination status.

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“We have to be as empathetic and as non-judgmental as we can to take the best care of them. I think we can’t pass judgment based on their decisions. I think we can just provide the best care that we can within the ICU,” she told Global News.

Shahin says treatment has improved as the pandemic has worn on, and lessons have been learned.

We know how to treat them. We know how to do what we need to do. Despite that, the mortality is still high,” he said.

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The MUHC is the only centre in Quebec offering extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and extracorporeal cardiopulmonary resuscitation (ECPR) on a 24-7 basis.

When COVID stops your lungs from delivering oxygen to the body, the ECMO machine removes blood from your circulatory system, pumps oxygen into it, and sends it back in.

Even with advances in treatment techniques, Shahin said almost half of those who are intubated in the ICU will die.

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Zeeman, the respiratory therapist, says the past two years have been exhausting.

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“It’s like a wild roller coaster, to be honest. A lot of workers have left, you know, for what they might describe as greener pastures,” he told Global News, explaining that he’s seen several colleagues leave for the private sector.

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I’ve had the ups and downs as well and I’m currently feeling much better. I have this sense that it’s getting better. There are less sick, and there is a lot of support now,” he said.

Zeeman comes face to face with COVID patients daily. Among his duties is to make sure ventilators are working properly on intubated patients.

Shahin says frustrated health-care workers want to feel supported by the public.

“There needs to be an appreciation of the health-care workers, really, especially the nurses and the respiratory therapists that do the majority of the work in the ICU,” he said.

“It’s been amazing to watch my colleagues do their job with professionalism and treat patients with empathy, despite how they might feel.”

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