Edmonton physician says informing families of COVID deaths comes at a personal cost

When one of her patients dies, Dr. Daisy Fung picks up the phone to inform the person’s family. 

Fung has made these calls often during her career in palliative and geriatric care but during the pandemic, the conversations have become more frequent and more painful.

Fung is working the front lines of the health crisis, treating patients at Capital Care Lynnwood, an Edmonton long-term care centre in the throes of an increasingly deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

“I remember every patient that I’ve had die under my care,” said Fung, a family physician and assistant clinical professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta.

Fung said too many of her patients have died from COVID-19, succumbing to the disease in isolation wards, far from the comfort of their families.

“To be the bearer of bad news is something we’re taught in medical school and residency to do well but it’s still so, so hard and I’m honestly going to take these experiences with me for the rest of my life,” Fung told CBC News, her voice breaking. 

“I will never forget the sounds of families crying on the other side of the phone or the silence as well. Sometimes silence is not a nice sound to hear and there’s been a lot of that.”

Fung says the pandemic has been devastating for patients, their families and for workers on the front lines. (Terry Reith/CBC)

During a 24-hour-period on Wednesday, three more patients at Lynnwood died, bringing the outbreak’s total death toll to 11.

As of Thursday, the facility was reporting 87 active cases; 56 residents and 31 staff have tested positive. Only five staff have recovered. 

The virus has been particularly deadly for facilities like Lynnwood. The west Edmonton facility is among 31 long-term care centres in the Edmonton health zone under outbreak status. Dozens more across the province are also struggling to contain the spread.

An outbreak at the Edmonton Chinatown Care Centre has spread across three floors of the facility. Four additional residents at Chinatown Care Centre died on Wednesday with a total of 20 deaths now linked to the outbreak.

As of Thursday, the centre was reporting 50 active cases among its residents and 38 cases among staff members.  

At Revera’s South Terrace Continuing Care Centre in south Edmonton, 27 residents have died. 

As of Thursday, the centre was reporting 32 active cases among residents and 36 active cases among staff. A total of 89 residents and 121 staff have tested positive since the outbreak began Oct. 22. 

Among Capital Care facilities, only two remain free of infection. Lynnwood is by far the worst afflicted. The operator has acknowledged that the virus is taking a toll on patient care

“Our thoughts continue to be with the family and friends of all residents who have lost a loved one,” Bonnie Roberts, the site director for Lynnwood, wrote in her latest update to resident families. 

“These losses are deeply felt by the staff at Lynnwood, who are working tirelessly to provide care and comfort to all residents at this challenging time.” 

During a 24-hour-period on Wednesday, three more patients at Capital Care Lynnwood long-term care centre died, bringing the outbreak’s total death toll to 11.  (Nathan Gross/CBC News)

‘Devastating for everyone’ 

Fung said she wants the public to understand the impact the virus is having on long-term care centres. Albertans contending with new public health restrictions need to remember the most vulnerable, she said.

“Almost every patient on my floor is affected,” she said. “It’s been devastating for everyone involved.” 

Fung spent the last 10 days working 12-hour shifts inside Lynnwood.

She said the facility, like so many others, is contending with staffing shortages. Workers sick or at risk of infection are being sent home to quarantine, leaving those who remain overworked and exhausted. 

“We know that health-care workers in general, outside of a pandemic, have higher rates of stress and burnout and mental health issues and suicide rates,” she said.

“And I don’t know what those numbers look like during the pandemic, but I can guess.” 

Fung said she has sought out mental health support in order to help her cope with stress and burnout. She hopes her colleagues will do the same, she said.

The toll on patients and their families has proved even more devastating, she said. Quarantine measures are leaving all residents, including those who have not contracted the illness, in isolation.

Visitors to Lynnwood have been heavily restricted in an attempt to contain the virus. 

“They miss their family,” Fung said of the residents. “They miss the physical presence, you know, where we’re doing Zoom and FaceTime calls as much as possible. But even that is a very limited resource. 

“It’s been very hard on the families now when they’re suddenly told that their loved one has COVID and is possibly not doing well and they may never see them in person again.” 

With caseloads across the province continuing to escalate, Fung said a vaccine can’t come soon enough.

She said it’s hard to remain hopeful with relentless daily news about the spread of the virus. 

“It’s so, so hard for everyone to be working through a shift right now, with the numbers going up,” she said.  

“Vaccines are definitely on the minds of families and patients. I really hope and pray that those aren’t delayed.”

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