Southlake pres. and CEO, on her battle with COVID-19

CTV's Craig Momney speaks with Southlake Regional Health Centre President and CEO Arden Krystal, who discusses her own battle with the virus and its toll on staff, patients, and their families.

Craig: Not only have you been dealing with the pandemic first hand at the hospital, but you yourself got COVID; what was it like?

Arden: It was a bit of a surprise for sure because I was working at the hospital, but you know, doing my best in terms of using my PPE appropriately, washing my hands, doing all the things that should be done. I was wearing eye protection. I was in areas where there was a high prevalence of COVID, both in patients and in staff, and so I believe that's where I contracted it.

The reason why I was so surprised is that I guess is I sort of felt probably like the public feels, which is as long as I do those things right, I can't get it. But the reality is that we know that it is reasonably easy to get, and so it may take something as small as, you know, touching a surface where someone who is positive just coughed on or something and then touching your eye protection or something like that.

It was a little scary when I first got my positive result; I was already at home with minor symptoms, and I thought, just to be on the safe side, I would isolate. I'm glad I did that because I got a positive result, and you just never know whether you're going to be one of those mild cases or whether you're going to be a serious case.

We have seen here at Southlake some people who did not have prior health conditions who had very, very serious cases and were in the ICU, so you just never you if you're going to be one of those.

Craig: Have you recovered, or do you still have any long-haul symptoms?

Arden: The one thing that I have, I don't have any serious long-haul symptoms thankfully, but I still do not have my sense of smell back. It's been; well, I had COVID in early January, so it's been a while, and I've done a lot of reading on that, and it appears that it could be up to five or six months before I get that back.

Craig: What don't people realize about the virus and the illness it causes?

Arden: I think that people are still, you know if they get the sniffles which is essentially, that was my first symptom. They're so conditioned to think, 'oh, I'm just getting a cold.' What they have to realize now is that there's almost nothing circulating except for COVID, and that's because people are washing their hands more, they're wearing masks, and they're not socially gathering. So, because they're not doing all of those things, the regular flus and regular colds aren't circulating.

What I think people have to really understand is that if you get any symptom at all like that, you need to assume its COVID, and you should isolate right away, and you should go get a test, and it doesn't matter who you are. You don't have to be a front-line care provider, you just need to be somebody who hangs around with people like that or even works in the hospital, and that to happen; you can be anyone in the community, and that can happen.

My worry is that people will see zones going red, or green, or yellow and think, 'ok, it's great now I can do my regular things,' and we really can't have people do that, because if they do that right now while people aren't vaccinated, were going to see a third wave and that would be most upsetting.

Craig: How did getting COVID-19 change your view of the virus and what you thought you knew about it?

Arden: I think that we're conditioned because early on in COVID, there was sort of some classic symptoms and those classic symptoms were fever, cough and chest pain. I didn't have really any of those things. I had kind of sinus pain, I had a very mild cough, I did not have a fever, I did have flu symptoms like fatigue, and some muscle aches, but I had really quite severe headaches.

There are a big range of symptoms that can constitute COVID now., We need people to really be aware that it isn't just those three classic symptoms, it can be a range of symptoms, and you can have it quite mildly, and so don't think it's something else; you have to think it's COVID because you might have a mild case, but you have to really be careful you don't spread it to others.

I'm really fortunate that my son and my husband, who are living with me, did not get COVID. And that's because of the isolation precautions that we employed in the household right away. So luckily, that was the case.

Craig: What do you see as we enter the second year of the pandemic?

Arden: My hopes is that we're going to see a continued reduction in cases, and then if that coincides with an increase in the vaccination rate, I'm kind of hoping that we're going to be back to some sense of normalcy by the fall, but normalcy will look a little bit different for the first year. I think, you know, for the context of our hospitals were going to be really busy next year. We have a lot of surgeries to catch up on, various procedures to catch up on. We're going to have very tired staff, and we're going to have to give them a break, and we're going to have to do all of that; that's going to be hard.

There's also going to be a number of people that probably have had chronic illnesses that they have not maybe taken care of in the same way because they were reluctant to go and see a doctor, they were reluctant to go to an emergency department, so we may see more acute onset of chronic illness that we need to deal with as well.

The other issue is mental illness. We are all really suffering from that. I am so fortunate in that I don't have to worry financially because I'm working. But even just having to go to work every day and 80 per cent of what we talk about and have work on is COVID and have to go home, and the paper's full of COVID and social media is full of COVID, it is very wearing when people don't have their normal activities to be able to reduce stress.

I think we're going to be facing a lot of residual fatigue and anxiety, and depression, and I hope that we will mobilize as a system to be able to help people through that.

Craig: What is your biggest concern going forward, and what keeps you up at night?

Arden: I'm going to talk about this in the context of being the CEO of Southlake, and I'm really worried about capacity. We were very stretched with capacity before COVID, and COVID came and really highlighted for us some of the challenges we have with our ageing facility.

Then I think we're going to see a huge bulge in activity post-COVID, and I'm really worried about how we're going to deal with that, both from a physical standpoint in terms of just space but also a human resource standpoint because we will have such tired staff. And so, I am very worried about that, and I feel the responsibility to do everything I can to make sure that our organization can deal with the health needs of the community, but I am very, very worried about how we're going to do that.

Craig: What do you want people to know about the impact of the pandemic on the hospital and its staff and healthcare?

Arden: I think it has been unprecedented for all of us. Some of us went through SARS and H1N1, and you know, we're trained to respond to emergencies, but they don't usually last this long and so resilience can be a real issue because you have to exert so much effort day, after day, after day, that that's hard and you know, it's going to take our people a while to recover from that. It's going to take the system a while to recover from that as well. It's going to take a while for all of the regular types of healthcare activities to be there for people again, and I hope that people will be patient.

Remember, too, that hospitals are very, very involved with the vaccination effort. So, we, as well as many of our counterparts, are running big mass vaccination centres in collaboration with public health and with paramedics and others. We're going to be very busy with that for a while as well, so there's just a lot going on.

For me, and this is just a little pitch, they (staff) really need some hope on the horizon. For us at Southlake, it's around our masterplan and trying to help people feel that there is some hope on the horizon around having a better place to work in terms of their physical environment. It is; certainly, this is a very challenging time for everyone, both those who work in the system and those who have been impacted and their families.