The longest year: 2020 through health-care workers' eyes, from Quebec's first COVID patient

Who had the longest 2020? High on the list would be someone like Vincent Bouchard-Dechene, a doctor who works on the COVID unit at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Hospital.

He remembers March 9—only nine months ago—when a patient arrived in an unusual condition. It was two days before the WHO declared a pandemic.

“It was a young patient that came in the hospital with atypical and very severe pneumonia,” Dr. Bouchard-Dechene, an internal medicine specialist, recalls.

“At that point we were only testing patients that were coming back from Wuhan, Italy or Iran, and that patient wasn't coming back from any of those three countries.”

But the hospital still ran the test for COVID-19, “and it came as a shock when the test came back positive,” he said.

Obviously, a lot has happened since then. Dr. Bouchard-Dechene recently reflected on its lessons while heading home after a 16-hour shift, the new norm since Quebec’s second wave began to climb.

“It's been a tough year,” he said.

On the bright side, one thing that progressed at a quick pace in just nine months is doctors’ knowledge of how to treat COVID-19 patients.

A heartbreak that’s remained consistent, meanwhile, is how little can be done for many patients, especially the older ones.

Orderly Helina Asumadu used to take care of her grandmother in her home country of Ghana, before immigrating to Canada 25 years ago. That experience motivated her to go into health care, she said.

For her, confronting patients’ death on a daily basis has been the hardest part of 2020.

“Some don't survive—they die,” said Asumado, who works at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

“So it was very difficult. And especially when you finish, going home, you don't know what you have,” and whether you’ve picked up the virus yourself.

A lingering reminder of 2020 for other health-care workers? Their ongoing symptoms from a past COVID-19 infection picked up on the job.

Asumado’s colleague, Naveed Hussain, got infected back in April and still has symptoms. He also hasn’t been able to see many people this year, which has made it harder.

“It's a bit tough,” said Hussain, a nurse. “You know, lack of contact with family has been rough. But I think a lot of us went through that.”

Other people may have déjà-vu during the second wave, but for many health-care workers, the two waves feel nothing alike.

In the first wave, it was a lack of physical resources that kept them up at night—ventilators, protective equipment, hospital space.

But now, with much wider community spread of the virus and thousands of their coworkers becoming ill or burning out, the worry feels different.

“In the hospital we have beds, ventilators, all the equipment—but we lack people,” said Dr. Bouchard-Dechene.

“We have a lot of space, but we cannot admit more patients because we don’t have enough nurses. So yesterday we had many patients coming in, but patients stayed in the ER.”

And while other people may be ready to declare the year of the pandemic over, at least on paper, and hope for better days, health-care workers aren’t joining them just yet: they say the worst may still be to come.

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