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Health professionals 'run into the fire' that is COVID-19

A Guelph doctor shares what it's like to be a health care professional as the situation change daily
Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik holds a vial at her primary care practice at 21 Yarmouth St. Supplied photo

Ever since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 pandemic, there has been new information about the virus daily, if not hourly.

Doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and admin staff need to constantly keep themselves up to date with medical information, political information and best practices when dealing with the changing landscape. 

While they battle the pandemic at the front lines, health professionals have had to change the way they practice medicine in a matter of days.

“It’s just amazing how people have run into the fire. Everyone else has been running away and we’re running into it,” said Guelph doctor Anne-Marie Zajdlik, one of the physicans working at the COVID-19 assessment centre on Delhi Street.

She says most of the physicians are trying to make their workplace as safe as possible for their staff and the public. 

“That’s our number one priority. Most of us have changed our office in terms of how it’s run so there’s as little risk of exposure to staff and patients as possible,” said Dr. Zajdlik. 

When the Guelph Family Hospital Team put out an urgent request to fill spots for a COVID-19 clinic, she said 80 per cent of the spots filled within a number of days with Guelph health care workers.

“Everyone is stepping up. Everyone is going back to their roots,” said Dr. Zajdlik.

“In our training, we’re trained to first do no harm but then you’re trained to take all the responsibility you need to take to make someone well and that includes putting your own life at risk.”

Two weeks ago, when the pandemic was declared, Ross Kirkconnell, the executive director of the Guelph Family Health Team quickly put together Guelph’s first COVID-19 clinic in a matter of days along with nurse practitioner Camille Louckes and Rea De La Franier.

“It was not part of their job description to do this but they were the driving force behind the COVID-19 clinic and that is going to be the key piece in all of this in terms of turning things around. The ability to test,” said Dr. Zajdlik who signed up to practice at the assessment clinic on 65 Delhi street.

“He’s not sleeping. Just to get the equipment together for this location and get the key partners organized has been a tremendous amount of work.”

When it opened on March 17, concerned residents formed a long line along the street waiting to get tested. 

Dr. Zajdlik says a day at the clinic begins with staff triaging hundreds of phone calls from patients so they can decide who absolutely needs to be seen in the office, who can be treated through telecommunications options and who needs to be seen in emergency. 

With personal protection equipment (PPE) and tests running out rapidly, nurses being manned away from their daily jobs to fight the virus, doctors, nurses and administrative staff are at a real risk of contracting the illness.

 And with new information released daily, they need to constantly keep themselves up to date. 

“At any given moment now when I’m at my desk, I might be making six decisions in a two minute time period, from questions from staff, questions from my nurse practitioners, questions from patients who are arriving and patients who need to be sent someplace else,” said Dr. Zajdlik. 

She said when patients such as young babies with ear infections, pregnant women, people who recently had surgery show up to the office, they still need to be seen regardless of the risk in exposure.

“So our main priority in that situation is to make sure they are not exposed by making sure there’s no COVID-19 in our office. We are keeping it sparkling clean and scrubbing it 10 times a day,” said Dr. Zajdlik.

Patients enter through a back door individually and are ushered into a room immediately where they put on a mask and see the doctor who is also geared with PPE such as gloves, goggles, a gown, and a mask. Once the patient is seen, they leave through the back door so they are not exposed to any surfaces in the office. 

“In a period of about four to five days, we’ve had to transform everything and learn as much as we could about the virus,” said Dr. Zajdlik who spends two to three hours a night reading to keep up with the increasing information. 

“I’m probably getting 10 or 11 alerts a day from the college of physicians, the surgeons, Public Health that are giving me more information about the virus and more information about what my responsibilities are to keep people safe.”

She says she can feel the tension in the room when patients wait and can see their terror. 

“I can sense in the room that this is bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before,” said Dr. Zajdlik who has been practicing medicine for 30 years.

She says people often ask her if she fears for her safety when going to work battling the virus for hours on a daily basis.

“I don’t mean this to belittle things but in my mind, if I die of this virus, I die of this virus. I die doing my job,” said Dr. Zajdlik.

She says it’s just a matter of time before health practitioners run out of PPE.

“That’s when the danger comes to the health care workers,” said Dr. Zajdlik adding that health care workers put their families at a high risk of the virus.  

“We’re actually bartering and trading among offices, ‘I have a pediatric mask you have a doc mask, do you want to trade?’” 

By posting on her Facebook daily, she is trying to share authentic information from medical workers to battle the hoards of misinformation out in the public. 

She said with all this going on, it wasn’t until Monday that she felt a surge of hope after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford sternly commanded Canadians to go home and stay home and indicating a clear plan to eradicate the virus. Social distancing. Staying in isolation and testing as many people as you can. 

She said it’s important to hunt down the people who tested positive people and anyone they’ve been in contact to quarantine themselves. 

“That kind of aggressive two-pronged approach of self-isolation is going to make this thing gone within a month ... We will do this.”