‘Everybody is very tired. And, the common question is, is this ever gonna end?’

Nathalie Coté, a physiotherapist in the Medical Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Toronto General Hospital, administers treatment to a patient with COVID-19. (Photo: UHN)

When the Omicron wave of coronavirus hit, some UHN staff were transported back in time.

“It felt like we were back to a year ago,” says Nathalie Coté, a physiotherapist in the Medical Surgical Intensive Care Unit (MSICU) at Toronto General Hospital.

“Everybody is COVID, although there’s fewer ECMOs,” Nathalie says of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, the machine that does the job of the lungs to allow them to rest and recover from COVID-19. “But, everybody is on their stomach and people are still just as sick, people are still dying.

“Yeah, we’re back to that. It’s worse because there’s no nurses.”

Being down staff – whether it’s short term due to some becoming infected with COVID-19 or others leaving the profession entirely – is what makes the Omicron wave so much harder, Nathalie says.

“I don’t know if there’s an average or whatever, but when you come in it is basically a constant that you’re down people,” she says.

New hires are being recruited, but until they land on the unit Nathalie’s colleagues are relying on some retirees who have returned for the short term, and agency nurses to fill in. That means some patients in the ICU are not getting one-to-one care.

“Everybody is very tired. Just tired. Everybody’s just had enough. And, the common question is, is this ever gonna end?” With emphasis, Nathalie adds: “Why isn’t everybody getting vaccinated?

“(The virus) still kills people, especially if you’re not vaccinated.”

Despite the daily strain, Nathalie says she and her colleagues are coping. What keeps her going? No hesitation in her answer: patients.

“Patients need us, and people are recovering, and they still need as much help as we can give,” she says. “So we’re there to rehab them.

“We’re working as a team and if we’re not busy in the ICU then we help out on the other floors.”

Nathalie finds hiking and geocaching with her two kids and husband helps her mental wellness. And, biking to work is a great release – something she was doing up until heavy snows in January. She can’t wait until the bike paths are clear again, and, the weather is warmer.

“It was better last summer,” Nathalie says. “So, we’re waiting for summer.

“We’re waiting for people to be able to go outside and not hang out indoors,” she adds, noting COVID is airborne, “so until then, keep your masks on.”

Along with the certainty of the upcoming change of seasons, Nathalie is also pretty certain about our future with the coronavirus.

“We’re never going to be going back to what we were,” she says. “You learn to cope with it, you accept it. I will probably always be wearing a mask to go to the grocery store and it’s just gonna be part of life…and you know, life continues.”

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