Rick Cameron, COVID survivor. Still from the Zoom meeting

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“Eggs with a side of hope” is the motto of the annual fundraising breakfast for the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation (DMRF). “If there is one lesson the pandemic has taught us,” said board chair Janet MacMillan at Wednesday’s (virtual) fundraising event, “ it’s that health research is crucial.”

COVID-19 survivor Rick Cameron is living proof. Over a Zoom link, the Pictou County grandfather in his mid-70s shared his experience and gratitude to health-care professionals for keeping him alive while he was in a coma during the first wave of the pandemic. 

“I feel well these days,” said Cameron, his voice still raspy from months with a tube down his throat. “I played golf; I was skating last week. When I first experienced symptoms, it was like having the flu. Then my breathing became laboured. After five or six days, I was in the hospital. They sent me to Truro and swabbed me. The swab came back positive and they intubated me that night. I have no recollection of the next 40 days. It was March 20 when they put me under. My first cognitive thoughts were around May 2, after I had been moved to the Aberdeen Hospital. It much scarier for my family than for me. I basically slept through it all.”

How COVID changed medicine

Researchers with Dalhousie University’s family medicine and medicine departments reported on how the pandemic’s first wave disrupted and changed visits to the doctor.

“Almost overnight, 80% of face-to-face visits in doctor’s offices turned to virtual care,” said Dr. Fred Burge, a professor of family medicine at Dalhousie. Burge said while many patients praised the convenience of telephone or email communication, the virtual visits are not the preferred means of seeing patients who don’t have access or who have difficulty navigating the digital world. 

Dr. Ashley Miller is a general internal medicine specialist at the Infirmary in Halifax. During the first wave, she said specialists in her field did 80% of their patient consultations on the phone and only 5% in person.

“This is just scratching the surface of the potential for virtual care,” said Miller. “We are starting to explore how to do secure messaging —emailing and texting — between the specialist and the patient’s family doctor.”

The lockdown in the spring may lead to new ways of helping patients with chronic diseases — such as heart conditions and diabetes — monitor and manage their symptoms from home. Miller said that could be one significant result of research underway right now.

“My team is looking at remote patient monitoring for COVID-19,” Miller explained. “When patients get diagnosed, we send them a portable pulse oximeter (a device to measure oxygen levels). Unfortunately, Rick Cameron didn’t have access to this because it evolved throughout the pandemic.

“We are providing patients with a phone-based platform where they can do self-monitoring at home,” continued Miller. “So when they identify the early signs of clinical deterioration with COVID-19 — when their oxygen levels are drifting or their heart rate is starting to climb — we actually have a mechanism where we can intervene early and try to provide coordinated care for those patients.”

Over the past nine months, the DMRF assembled $1.5 million to fund 40 projects related to COVID research, including an online tool developed by Saint Mary’s University psychology professor Dr. Debra Gilpin to help front-line workers cope with feelings of burnout. 

Northwood

Dr. Sam Searle. Still from the Zoom meeting

During very dark days last spring as the virus raced through Northwood Centre in Halifax claiming the lives of 53 residents, geriatrician Dr. Sam Searle managed to find a gleam of hope that could inspire change should the virus invade long-term care homes again. 

Searle was seconded from his research at Dal to help organize a rehabilitation unit at a Dartmouth hotel for Northwood residents who were recovering from COVID-19. It was staffed with people from Northwood as well as volunteers and support from the Nova Scotia Health Authority. 

Searle told people attending Wednesday’s virtual breakfast that isolating and caring for infected elderly residents in a hotel was an innovative response that hadn’t been tried anywhere else in Canada. The unintended and hopeful consequence, according to the doctor, was that the physical and emotional well-being of the elderly residents improved. Staff, who had arrived at the new location exhausted and discouraged after so much death, also eventually got a boost to their morale.

“Residents did have health issues and were lonely but we worked with each individual to find out what would make their lives better,” said Searle. “it might be helping learn to walk or find creative ways so they could maximize time communicating with family. Getting out of bed to eat a meal. Once we turned our attention from reacting only to COVID, many of the healthcare workers started to feel better about coming to work and the vast majority of residents ended up functioning better.”

Hopeful signs as we head back into difficult times.


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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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