Covid Time in the Maritimes
Our family vacation turned into a fully immersive tour of the NSHA’s Covid response process, and a life-altering reset of what I hold dear. So I wrote about it.
My instant of Covid clarity came around 5 am on July 8, waking up in a frigid sweat, lying on a balled up blanket on the floor by the huge bookcase in the second floor reading nook of our grand AirBnB in Musquadoboit Harbour, Nova Scotia. I had volunteered to make camp outside our bedroom after a series of Covid symptoms were making me a snoring, hacking mess, as well as a swirl of ripe contagion, though it was growing pretty likely that that particular horse was way out of the barn.
I was disoriented and wet, puzzled by my whereabouts in the dawn light and opulent furnishings – it was a spectacular chalet-style summer home, rented for the week by our kids – and I lay there mustering up a phlegmy cough, fever-musing about the degree of care one should take stocking an AirBnB with books; these folks had gone with a fantasy and thriller theme, including a full set of Hardy Boys, several Clive Cusslers, and a gift set of Game of Thrones. Who starts reading a 5000 page story with a borrowed book?
It was the last day of our five day family getaway. In March, our three grown kids had come up with the idea, and booked a vacation rental we could share in Nova Scotia, not too far from our middle son’s home in Dartmouth. Susan and I and our other two kids traveled from Ontario, and all 12 of us – Ma and Pa, 2 sons and a daughter, 3 spouses and 4 grandkids were sharing this big new house by the harbour.
I was having flu-like symptoms on the Sunday we congregated, but was certain it was a passing seasonal thing, not unlike the bug both Susan and I had caught last summer while visiting Dartmouth. My Covid rapid test was a clear negative, and we chalked it up to another bout of Daycare-borne baby plague unwittingly muled by our granddaughter. I vowed to isolate nonetheless, and spent the first few days at my own table or in the reading nook, swilling Quil, both Day and Nite, tamping down my fever and burning through Kleenex.
By Tuesday I decided to visit a clinic to see if an antibiotic was in order. Musquodoboit Harbour has a charming little hospital and they were able to see me promptly. The good doctor suspected an infection, and took an X-ray. The young nurse was quicker with a diagnosis as she administered the requisite PCR Covid test: “You’ve got the Covid!” I wouldn’t get the official results until Friday, but to Musquadoboit Meghan it seemed clear.
I had had three vaccination shots and a booster shot in May. I even had had Covid in January, like everyone else in North America. I had been a little too eager to go maskless in Loblaws, I suppose in hindsight, but had tried to follow the masking norms such as they were, and really hadn’t been out much anyhow. The likelihood of a serious encounter with Covid-19 seemed very unlikely. Nonetheless, Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Covid Test Report Bot phoned me on Thursday – You have Covid.
On Friday morning, after waking up a second time, I dragged myself to the shower, keenly aware of the alarming necessity to marshall my strength. There was some new basic deficit in the linkage between my breath and my mobility where even wrestling my way out of my soaked T-shirt was a gymnastics marathon, requiring lengthy recuperative panting sessions. I rinsed off the layer of fever sweat, found my simplest pair of shorts, stuffed a phone charger and headphones in the cargo pocket and asked my daughter to lay me on the lawn outside Dartmouth General Hospital on the way back into town. (Historical footnote: It was July 8, the morning of Roger’s infamous massive service outage. My heroic kids, schooled in all media matters technical and social but lacking the mapping and orienteering instincts of even the previous generation, deprived of GPS, bolted out of Musquadoboit in the exact wrong direction. It was still a nice drive.)
The Dartmouth General ER staff were as efficient and accommodating as their peers at the Harbour, and it wasn’t long before I was admitted and hooked up to an electronic monitor and an oxygen supply. The interplay between oxygen use and heart rate became the key indicator of my status; low heart rate, high oxygen = good! My ability to turn air into heartbeats became the topic of all speculation – this essential factoid of Covid, that an invader has set up camp in my lungs and was redirecting my hydro, became the enduring visual analogy of what was happening. It was no longer rogue spiked puffballs in my airways, but a caked sediment of viral debris clogging up my HVAC like dead mice in the eaves troughs. With effort I could bark my way through the chaos and issue a feeble bubble of phlegm, but mostly I surrendered, breathing little puffs and relishing the richness of the cool oxygen trickling down the back of my throat. God bless this nurse. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d get strangely weepy.
It was clear the Nova Scotia Health Authority was stuck with me, so plans were made. Across the Halifax harbour are a few more larger hospitals, and a dedicated Covid ward had been set up at the Halifax Infirmary. I was transported there late Friday evening and tethered up to a new collection of cables and hoses.
The most peculiar of my new accessories was a therapeutic CPAP machine, a Darth Vader style rubbery face clamp that directs a forceful flow of air into the lungs with every breath, supplementing my own breathing muscles as my lungs try to evict the invaders. The mask itself requires a tight seal, so it includes velcro straps at the forehead and cheeks to seal the mouthpiece fully over the lips and mouth. During days one to five I was encouraged to wear the mask as much as possible, even while sleeping. It’s a bit like hanging your face out of a moving car, letting your jowls inflate and flap in the wind like a happy golden retriever going for a car ride.
Instructing me about the CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask and everything else were my new heroes in life, the nurses. I became highly aware of the hands-on nature of their work, balanced with a vast and detailed knowledge that became my reference source for the very specific new task in my life – surviving. There is nothing in my life as an academic or musician or family man that comes close to meeting the call of duty these folks answer every hour on the ward, smoothing over the mountainous ripple in reality being endured by the strangers appearing randomly in their care. How many ways are there to answer the question ‘What is happening to me?’
In the case of my first nurse, the answer was all in the take-charge attitude and the tacit assurance from a clear Covid veteran that I was in the right place. She was a textbook exemplar of efficiency and spunk, ready with sensible advice – my strongest memory is finding her at my bedside, 5:30 am, waking me for bloodwork with a quick cognition quiz and a motivational maxim that escapes me now. She had a Rosie the Riveter persona, complete with no-nonsense kerchief under her PPE, and she could drain blood from a fig newton. She’d seen it all, of course, and that credential alone earned my trust as a newbie who, at that now long ago moment, had never yet draped himself into a handheld urinal.
Over the following week a series of young nurses tended to me, all with confidence, purpose and good humour. Not a single caregiver seemed indifferent or mechanical, attributable perhaps to NS Health’s hiring protocols, or maybe the unlikelihood of the wrong person persisting in this role, or perhaps just statistical anomaly. However it came to be, the kindness, humanity and depth of training and commitment on display in the ol’ Halifax Infirmary in the summer of ’22 has restored my faith that this world is heading in the right direction after all. (Another footnote – I remember entitled Canadians in their trucks with their megaphones, sneers and misappropriated national flags last January trying to drum up sympathy for their impatience with safety mandates, immeasurably complicating the working lives of my young nurses by throwing a childish self-serving tantrum. I recall tubfuls of useful idiots on the news, unwittingly recruiting for the toxic far-right and generating coveted stock footage of good ol’ Canadian boys waving Confederate flags in downtown Ottawa. It leaves me sick in a different way.)
The maintenance of a human in top running order is trouble enough as we all know, but until this second week of July I hadn’t thought too hard about waste disposal. The male bodily interface with our current plumbing systems is inelegant but serviceable, until the body is rendered less mobile. The protocol ‘bed rest’ seemed innocuous and easily within my wheelhouse until the first pee. “No, you can’t get up. You’ll die.” Well, actually it was a threat of oxygen deprivation and a hugely inconvenient collapse to the floor, but I accepted the urinal humbly. In this case, a urinal is a litre-sized bottle that you jam into your crotch and hope that all is aligned as you planned: “3-2-1 …” and then hopefully a sense of relief with no corresponding sense of warmth where it shouldn’t be.
The pan is another story, requiring a renewed familiarity with pathways and participating muscle sets that have been on autopilot since toddlerdom. Once again, God bless this nurse.
Beyond plumbing, the challenge for the newly bedbound is to find a comfortable balance among the various hoses, leads and guy wires. One can squirm about considerably to locate a sweet spot of sorts, only to have your oxygen monitor probe slip off your toe into the bowels of the bed. Nurses will come running, since there is momentarily no evidence of you still being alive.
So, tethered up and thankfully conscious and not too miserable, I passed my time. Life became a series of meals, most good, all eagerly anticipated – I became fond of the fishcakes and chutney. We also got enormous pails of juice on request and a popsicle on a quiet night. These interludes of normality, punctuated with media apps on my phone, were the highlights in my universe, along with the numerous visits by my keepers.
One big complication for the staff was the requirement to follow tight protective protocols when tending to Covid victims. My room was in fact an improvised isolation pod, crafted quickly in early pandemic days out of plastic sheeting, 2 X 4’s and thumb tacks, sealed carefully from the world with red duct tape. Visitors needed to gown up for every visit no matter how fleeting, so staff made it a habit to try and do it all in one trip:
VOICE IN HALL: “You need anything else in there? Juice? Hot water and towel?”
ME, SLIGHTLY WEEPY AFTER WATCHING GYPSY FUNERAL: “No, but my phone charger fell out of the wall, and I can’t watch the end of Peaky Blinders. Please and thank you. Cough cough … and is my supper tray out there somewhere? Fishcakes? Oh, and the kybo is full, sorry.”
“No problem! I’ll grab you a popsicle too – Lime okay?”
Yes – my nurses, bearing responsibility I cannot fathom, juggling a floor-full of helpless patients, sanitizing, gowning and ungowning, writing reports, placating and deferring to supervisors, working twelve hour shifts interspersed with respites of daytime sleep and surreal commutes back and forth to their twenty/thirty-something lives, were concerned that I get my popsicle flavour of choice.
By Day Seven my breathing was coming easier, and I was weaned off my oxygen. Later that day the wretched cardiac terminals were peeled off, and my IV connection was uninstalled. I could flip over in bed! I had been ‘declassified’, meaning I no longer required an ICU bed, but would remain there until another bed ‘upstairs’ was available. One of the two Devons – two great nurses of different genders, same great name – speculated that I may be good enough to be set free straight from there, so she made my case to the team. By the following morning I was marched around the quad to a smattering of applause, demonstrating enough utility in my lungs to sustain me in the wild. At noon on Saturday, Day 8, I put on the dank shorts and shirt I had arrived in, stuffed a puffer into my pocket and was wheeled ceremoniously to my son’s KIA.
I cannot imagine hospitalization is the same for everyone. My only previous experience on a ward was when hepatitis barreled through our Grade Seven class on CFB 3 Wing, Zweibrucken Germany, 1969. It was great fun, oddly – after the initial misery of jaundice, fever and nausea, after it had morphed into pajama camp with crafts and snacks, a good time was had by all. I remember being disappointed being sent home to finish convalescing, and the long weeks afterwards of solo bedrest were a slow and lonesome time for a twelve-year old.
I am certainly much more appreciative at this age to be mobile again, mostly savouring the liberty of self-toileting and a tether-free sleep space. But I think of 3MICU often, and struggle to express how the work done there is a gift to us all beyond description. How do people choose this as their life’s work? It’s exhausting, repetitive, certainly smelly, and prone to regular and massive disappointment thanks to the human body’s limits. Did my choked and inarticulate ‘Thank You’ on the way to the elevator hang weirdly in the air, or even register anywhere?
Certainly our gratitude goes beyond the case-by-case acknowledgement of a painless blood prick or a vigorous sponge bath. The best I can do, aside from taking the best care of myself as I can and maybe sending the ward a basket of Starbucks coupons (?), is to be sure I never take this good work for granted, and know that the option taken by talented young people to be part of this helping community is the essence of why we form communities. Yes, at this time when the notion of community and shared responsibility is regularly trashed by brave new thinkers who cannot muster up the humility to concede to educated folks and take the smallest imperfect steps to protect our herd, we’re heading in the right direction after all, on the shoulders of far smarter young professionals on the ward. God bless this nurse.
Adair Meehan, July 18, 2022