PHILADELPHIA – Haweater Dr. Stephanie Hart is working as a pulmonary and critical care medicine fellow at a Philadelphia hospital, working between the intensive-care unit (ICU) and the main hospital in the midst of COVID-19’s devastation across the United States. Her first-hand experience has led her to share a cautionary tale of just how badly COVID-19 can ravage a population, even among those without any pre-existing health conditions.
“I’ve seen people in their thirties and forties die of COVID-19. It’s no joke,” Dr. Hart told The Expositor following the call. “I’m only 30 and sometimes we can think we’re invincible or that this is just like a flu. I’ve had the flu before and this is not like that; it’s very serious.”
Dr. Hart joined a Zoom call this past Monday, December 14, with Island health care leaders who have taken the lead on preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic locally. She shared clinical treatment information and best practices to help Island doctors plan their care regimes should the Island see a COVID-19 critical care surge.
“Early on, there was not a lot of evidence-based medicine for this, so in my experience, hearing what other people have been doing has been invaluable and I’m happy to share. Hopefully, none of this ever becomes important for you guys to know,” she said.
Dr. Hart left Manitoulin to study at the University of Toronto, followed by medical school in Ireland. She has been living in Philadelphia since 2016 and is in year two of three in her pulmonary and critical care medicine fellowship.
In the hospital, Dr. Hart wears an N95 mask with a surgical mask over top, as well as a plastic eye shield and a gown. She said employee transmission has not been a major issue at her hospital thus far.
Dr. Roy Jeffery asked what the timeline was between a patient losing their stable status and needing critical intervention, which may require a trip to Sudbury. Dr. Hart said health teams generally have sufficient time to stabilize a patient.
Dr. Mike Bedard, who co-ordinated the session, added that the Island health providers were closely watching Health Sciences North’s ability to accept critical care patients and said the difficulty in getting nurses on the Island was a challenge.
“It’s important to get the message out that our little ‘boat’ can be swamped very quickly here, in my opinion. We’re having a lot of people not buying in to public health messages, getting fatigued (of the restrictions) or saying that they don’t believe in it,” he said.
“The Island is nice because people have the ability to be socially distant. If everybody follows the rules, wears a mask and only sees the people they need to see, that will mean no surge in COVID on the Island. I really, truly believe that,” said Dr. Hart, who added that Manitoulin’s caseload could explode without health measures.
“I know there’s lots of families spread out over the Island who want to see each other, especially with the holidays coming up, but we’ve seen whole families get hospitalized in the last two weeks since American Thanksgiving. That could have been completely avoided if we just tried to socially isolate as much as possible,” she said.
Being in an American hospital during this time has been a challenging experience, Dr. Hart said. The US currently leads the world in total COVID-19 cases and total related deaths, though it does not top the list of deaths per capita.
“I’ve learned way more in the last nine months than I did in the whole year or more,” she said, adding that she has appreciated being directly involved in the efforts rather than stuck at home.
In the nine months since the start of the outbreak, health care teams have gotten a much more fulsome understanding of the virus and its impacts on people.
“In March, I think I can speak for everyone that it was very scary,” Dr. Hart said. “It was so new and we didn’t know how contagious it was; all we’d hear was horror stories from elsewhere, so it was very scary to go into work.”
Her pulmonary fellowship meant she was on the team administering oxygen, so she has often handled the most severe cases.
“It’s definitely changed the way we do medicine in hospitals. Families can’t come and visit, so people are completely alone. We try to Facetime family members on the phone as much as possible,” she said.
Dr. Hart is in line to receive a vaccine in the coming weeks and said she was very excited for what long-term changes it may bring to the world, being careful to note that the vaccine would not mean an immediate return to ‘normal’ for the public.
“Studies of the vaccine are so far very promising,” she said. “The vaccine cannot give you COVID. It is not a live virus, it’s just a gene of what makes up the virus; of the 18,000 people that got the (Pfizer trial) vaccine, only eight people actually got COVID. That, to me, is pretty solid.”
Dr. Hart acknowledged that some people are concerned about side effects but very few people have reported serious reactions.
“I think it is very safe and very effective based on the studies published so far. Getting COVID is 100,000 times worse,” she said.
Fresh from the surge after American Thanksgiving, Dr. Hart urged Canadians to continue abiding by public health measures and to avoid gatherings over the Christmas season.
“The only way the virus can be contained is to wear masks, (wash one’s hands) and to socially distance. I know it’s tough if you can’t see your family at Christmas, but if someone gets COVID then they might not be here next Christmas,” she said.
On a personal level, Dr. Hart said the pandemic has been difficult because border restrictions have kept both her and her Canadian fiancé (who works nearby as a surgical resident) from seeing their families in Canada.
“There are many other people in the same boat as us. I feel very proud and lucky to have the opportunity to help people, but there have certainly been sacrifices. Fortunately, we have amazing support systems,” she said, adding that technology like video calls have been a major help.