Coronavirus: Toronto nurse speaks about caring for Canada’s first COVID-19 patient

Clarice Shen was just three months into her new career at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre when she was assigned to care for Canada’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient.

At the time, it was an illness shrouded in mystery. It was still known by many as the “Wuhan virus” because significantly less was known about it, and much of the news coverage on it was still filtering out of China.

Eight months later, there have been at least 150,000 cases across Canada and more than 9,200 deaths.

“On the TV… I would see doctors and nurses in hazmat suits essentially,” Shen recalled.

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“They were just having these grueling days where they were stuck in a suite for 12 hours or who knows how long.”

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It was Jan. 23 when Shen was assigned to provide care for the 56-year-old man, who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. She was working as a member of Sunnybrook’s acute care nursing resource team.

At the start of her shift, she went through her list of assignments for that evening, noted a couple of patients and one entry she had never seen before. It was a blocked-off bed. She went to her supervisor, seeking clarification, and was told this would be the designated bed in the hospital for a potential coronavirus patient.

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At around midnight, a call came from the emergency department advising them that a male patient with possible symptoms was being admitted and would be staying in that negative pressure isolation room.

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“We already have all our protective gear, gloves, gown, face shield, N95, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with putting on all the equipment,” Shen recalled.

“But because this virus is so new, we don’t know how it spreads.”

Almost immediately after that call from emergency, Shen said the hospital shift manager arrived.

“You rarely see the shift manager at night time come to your unit unless there’s something important happening.”

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He was looking for the nurse assigned to the room.

Shen was quickly brought up to speed on who the patient who would soon be in her care was, and was run through isolation procedures and how to keep herself safe. She confessed to some nervousness upon first hearing that a patient was being admitted, but that feeling quickly subsided.

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It turned out Shen’s patient spoke Mandarin, a language she happened to be fluent in.

“Perhaps there wasn’t an ER nurse who could speak it to him, so he felt very alone and isolated and scared,” she said.

“I was able to step in for him and ground him and explain to him that he was safe, that we were going to take care of him.”

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His status went to confirmed from “presumptive.”

Shen was scheduled to work three more shifts that week. She said she contacted her supervisor and volunteered to continue caring for him.

Shen, who has a history of asthma, considered a number of factors.

“I thought, ‘Well, I am young. Maybe the changes are that I wouldn’t get super sick and at the same time, I live alone,’” she recalled.

Her patient recovered. His wife was the second person in Canada to contract the virus.

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