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‘I felt a tiny bit invincible until I got this’: Vancouver ER doctor with COVID-19 shares his story

When Dr. Joseph Finkler started feeling run-down at the beginning of last week, he attributed the fatigue to the string of night shifts he had been working at the emergency department of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

Same thing when he noticed he had a slight fever. 

When he lost his sense of smell, he assumed it was because he’d been walking around the hospital wearing a mask.

“You got into an emergency department and it’s not like a perfume parlour. It’s quite the opposite. It is like a garbage dump,” he said. “But I thought, ‘Oh, it doesn’t smell so bad in here as usual.”

It wasn’t until last Thursday, when he woke up sweating and shaking, that he knew he needed to get tested for COVID-19.

Twenty-four hours later, he received the results: positive.

“I guess I felt a tiny bit invincible until I got this,” Finkler said.

WATCH | Finkler talks about coming to terms with his COVID-19 diagnosis:

Vancouver emergency room doctor Joseph Finkler talks about not wanting to believe he had COVID-19 and when it finally sunk in. 1:21

The 62-year-old is one of dozens of health-care workers in this country who have been infected with COVID-19. They include staff taking care of the elderly in seniors’ residences, which have experienced outbreaks in several provinces, as well as doctors and nurses in hospitals, treating those who have fallen most severely ill from the virus.  

While they continue to put their health at risk fighting the pandemic, many in the profession have been sounding the alarm over the supplies of protective masks, gowns and face shields.

Trouble tracking the cases

Currently, there is no one tracking the number of infections among health-care workers nationally, but federal officials say they are working to compile that data from the provinces and territories.

Alberta has confirmed 77 of its health-care workers have tested positive for the virus.

In the Windsor-Essex area of southern Ontario, 15 health-care workers have been infected. The majority of those workers live in Canada but commute across the border to work in Michigan, where there is a significant COVID-19 outbreak.

St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, where Finkler works, is one of many hospitals in the region seeing an uptick in patients with possible symptoms of COVID-19. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

None of Finkler’s colleagues has tested positive or been experiencing symptoms. He said he isn’t sure where he contracted the virus, because even though he swabbed several patients for COVID-19 throughout March, he doesn’t believe any of them tested positive.

He said he still feels run-down. While talking with CBC News via Zoom, he had to pause multiple times to cough.

He said there is a healthy sense of paranoia throughout the emergency department because the medical staff all know how contagious the virus is, and how deadly it can be.

Doctors prepare for peak in Canada

In Italy, more than 60 doctors have died of COVID-19. And in the U.K., up to a quarter of physicians have been off sick with the virus or self-isolating.

Finkler said his hospital hasn’t seen a large influx of COVID-19 patients yet. It’s as if everyone is preparing for a “military exercise,” he said.

“People just don’t know when the battle is going to start. And when the casualties are going to start to come in.”

Finkler is an emergency room doctor in Vancouver and had been seeing patients concerned they may have symptoms of COVID-19. (Submitted by Dr. Joseph Finkler)

He said staff in the emergency room are wearing all of the proper personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as gloves and masks.

While Finkler believes there is an adequate supply of the safety gear at his facility in Vancouver, how long the inventory will last depends on the number of patients who start showing up and how many of them require intubation and ventilation, procedures that carry a higher risk of contagion.

Push for safety gear

Officials with the Canadian Medical Association, which represents doctors across Canada, say they are hearing from members who are concerned about their safety and that of their families, particularly because some facilities are reporting a shortage of PPE.

On Monday, the federal government announced $2 billion for purchasing PPE and ventilators.

Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand said 157 million masks were already on order, including 60 million N95 respirators. Delivery is set to begin this week.

Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said there has been a lot of funding committed to buying more safety gear, but the issue is getting the equipment out to the health-care workers now.

“We would never permit a firefighter to go into a building without the equipment to protect him or her,” he said. “It is the same for a health-care worker.”

WATCH What has surprised Finkler about the spread of COVID-19:

Vancouver emergency room doctor Joseph Finkler says he was taken aback by how indiscriminately the novel coronavirus has hit younger people and his fellow health workers. 1:26

As for Finkler, he said there is a lot of apprehension inside the hospital, but also a lot of camaraderie and planning for the expected surge of patients. 

He is unsure when public health officials will permit him to return to work, but he is looking forward to going back. 

“It has been a humbling experience,” he said. “I can’t wait until … I am back and I can say, ‘Coronavirus, bring it on.'”

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