Life as an ICU Nurse at VGH During a Pandemic

For 12 years, Dana Fedor has proudly served as a nurse at VGH caring for some of the province’s most critically ill patients.

From the moment she graduated from Thompson Rivers University in 2008, she moved down to Vancouver and jumped headfirst into the neurosciences department. Dana worked in this department for a year before moving into what some consider to be one of the most challenging units in nursing – the Neuro ICU. 

Her work in the Neuro ICU consisted of helping patients recover from all matter of brain-related injuries and illnesses, from head traumas to complex neurological diseases and conditions.

“I did that for five years and also did some charge nursing, but in the fall of 2013 I went for my critical care diploma, and jumped into the main ICU,” says Dana. “I just knew that I’ve always wanted to do critical care, helping people through some intense traumas.”

One of those “intense” cases she helped care for was Alison Snowden, a double-lung transplant recipient and Oscar-winning writer, director and animator known for her work on Peppa Pig, Shaun the Sheep, Bob and Margaret and many more.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, her work took a drastic turn.

Fighting on the front lines against COVID-19

When Dana started nursing, she never imagined she would be working during a pandemic.

“Looking back, I can honestly say this has been one of my most difficult times in my 12 years working as a nurse,” says Dana. “I have experienced every emotion humanly possible: fear, sadness, anger, pride, love. I have worked late and arrived home physically and mentally exhausted.”

But despite it all, Dana knows there is nowhere else she would rather be than fighting alongside her ICU family – the fellow nurses and doctors who continue to astonish her as they care for COVID-19 infected patients at VGH.

“I have been so impressed with how quickly my VGH colleagues have adapted to the new COVID-19 measures,” says Dana. “It takes a lot to come together as a team during such an unprecedented time, but what I’ve been reminded of again and again is how strong we are, even in the worst of times.”

It’s interesting, Dana reflects, as when COVID-19 first arrived in BC she remembers feeling fearful about not knowing what was about to happen. But when she got back into the hospital, her fears were alleviated. 

Dana saw how coordinated and careful the staff were being. How much thought and care they were putting not just into patient care, but into caring for the staff, too.

“Now I’m going into the warzone, taking care of the COVID patients, but I’m not scared,” says Dana. “We’re learning more every day, and I feel like we’re going to get through this together.”

Feeling the support

“As hard as it has been emotionally, I feel so proud to be a nurse and work alongside all the amazing staff at VGH and to receive the support of the community,” says Dana. “Even just going into work, I remember I was driving in one day, and at 7 p.m. I saw two ladies who had cowbells out and they peered into my car and they started waving and cheering. I’m not normally an emotional person, but I freely admit I was tearing up that evening.”

Dana continues to soldier on, and it’s the love from her Vancouver community that has helped her push through to keep fighting. 

Nick Kanaan – A Lifelong Battle

Father saved by donor-funded ECMO machine after lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis

Before Nick Kanaan was even born, tests from his mother’s amniotic fluid determined Nick suffered from cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disorder that would cause irreversible damage to his lungs and leave him on the brink of death in 2019.

His mother and father had already buried two of their children — young girls — from the same disease; sisters Nick would only ever learn of through stories.

This is why when Nick was three months old his parents decided to move to Canada. They wanted to give their son a fighting chance in a new country renowned for its health care. And for nearly 30 years Nick thrived.

But in October 2017, while on a work trip to Toronto, Nick started having difficulty breathing. He was getting ready to fly home to Vancouver, but he couldn’t even leave his hotel. Instead, his parents — who reside in Ontario — came and drove him to a nearby hospital.

“I entered through the emergency room and a nurse immediately hooked me up to oxygen and said, It’s good you did not get on that airplane,” says Nick. “I could barely breathe.”

Nick was hospitalized for two and a half months. His lungs were failing; the disease was winning.

While Nick eventually made it safely home to Vancouver and to his pregnant wife Lindsay, he had the sense this was just the beginning.

Gasping for air

Fast-forward. January 2019. Nick has been meeting regularly with doctors who have informed him a lung transplant may be necessary. Tests of his breathing strength and capacity show discouraging results. And as with CF, they said, it was only a matter of time before the disease won.

And then Nick caught an infection.

“This time I was like, You know what? Let’s just deal with it right away,” says Nick. “I got hooked up on home IV. And after a couple weeks I was starting to feel a little better.”

But his positive feelings wouldn’t last long, as during the midst of his treatment, Nick woke up one night and started coughing up blood.

Lindsay roused to the sounds of Nick coughing, choking and gasping for air. Nick felt like he was drowning.

“I’ll never forget that,” says Lindsay.

“I honestly thought I might die right then,” says Nick.

For a month after the incident Lindsay would shoot awake at the slightest noise Nick made. She even started dreaming about it. 

This would be the first of three episodes of coughing up blood Nick would have to live through. The medications weren’t working as everyone had hoped.

He needed a lung transplant. And he needed one fast.

The brink of collapse

Fast-forward. March 2019. Nick is hospitalized again; his lungs are on the brink of collapse.

“I would be sitting in the hospital bed and just getting winded from nothing,” says Nick. “The most exercise I could do was walk to the washroom, and that simple act was beyond exhausting.”

Nick was using six to seven litres of oxygen per day and was still struggling to breathe. He had no appetite. Nick would try to force food into his body, but during this time he lost nearly 70 pounds.

“Then at the end of March my upper lobe on my left lung collapsed,” says Nick.

Nick was given a bronchial tube to help breathe. Meanwhile, doctors were actively seeking a suitable lung donor. They thought they had a pair for him at one point, but it turned out the lungs were infected with influenza and the risk was too great to proceed with a transplant.

They needed a suitable replacement as soon as possible. But while they waited, Nick’s health was rapidly declining. It was a race against time.

“I had another episode of hemoptysis — the worst I’ve ever had,” says Nick. “Close to two cups of blood came out of my lungs. At this point I was so unwell my family was afraid to leave me in the hospital alone, so there was constantly somebody sleeping in my room.”

Nick’s lungs were deteriorated and infected with multi-resistant pneumonias. The damage had started restricting his breathing to the point where he needed something more than oxygen. He needed a way to breathe without his lungs. He needed ECMO.

ECMO is a portable, donor-funded heart-lung machine that oxygenates the blood reinfuses it into the body, essentially taking over the role breathing and allowing the lungs to rest.

And there is only one hospital in BC capable of this procedure — VGH.

A life-saving bridge to surgery

“The function of Nick’s lungs was essentially destroyed,” says Dr. Hussein Kanji, Nick’s primary physician at VGH. “We knew there was no ability for the lungs to recover. So, we asked ourselves how do we get him to a point where we can keep him strong enough, provide the nutrition, and get him in the best basic physiologic state so that he can be a good transplant recipient. And the only way really to do that was to provide ECMO.”

The procedure was a success, and for the first time in Nick’s life, his lungs could rest. 

Three and a half weeks later VGH received a lung donor. It was a match.

Breathing in new life

Dr. John Yee performed the double-lung transplant. The surgery was textbook.

“Dr. Yee, one of the most amazing people I have ever met at VGH, called me after the surgery,” says Lindsay. “He’s like, Hi, Lindsay. I just want to let you know the surgery’s done. It was flawless. It went so well. It’s going to take him some time to recover, but be patient, give him time. He will get through this.

Two days later he was taken off ECMO. Nick was breathing on his own with a new set of lungs.

Going home

The past year was filled with ups and downs, but despite the incredible hardships Nick has endured he adamantly states he would do it all again.

“Absolutely,” says Nick. “To get to this point where I am now? To be healthy and able to think of a future where I don’t have to worry about the closest hospital, or where my medications are? I get to be a normal person because of the care I received.”

These days Nick is nearly back to a normal life. He still has to take it slow to encourage the proper healing, but the family is planning on taking a trip for their daughter’s birthday in March. A family first.

“For the first time in my life I laid on Nick’s chest and I listened to him take in these deep, wonderful breaths,” says Lindsay. “I can’t describe that feeling.”

Colin Dowler's Story

Grizzly bear attack puts hiker in the fight of his life

One morning in July 2019, Colin Dowler was returning to his boat parked at a logging camp in Ramsay Arm east of Campbell River. He had spent the previous day mapping out a route to climb Mount Doogie Dowler — a local mountain named after Colin’s late grandfather that he and his brother planned to hike together.

Nearly seven kilometres out from his boat, Colin’s life changed forever. While riding down the trail he came across a grizzly bear.

“The bear looked into the bush a couple of times, and I was hoping that it was just going to step off into the forest, but it didn’t,” says Colin.

Colin got off his bike, took off his backpack and extended a hiking pole — he had heard of another hiker once fending a bear off with one and figured it couldn’t hurt to have it in hand.

Colin kept his composure and watched the bear as it walked towards him and then seemingly right past. They made brief eye contact, and Colin breathed a sigh of relief as the bear continued to walk past him.

“The bear was maybe four feet away. It was really close,” says Colin. “It walked almost all the way past, like his rump was about to pass by my rear tire of my bike. At that point he did a one-eighty turn so I turned in kind and extended the pole out towards the bear. With my bike in between us and he did a little shudder. Then the bear advanced towards me.”

Colin tried to poke the bear between the eyes with the hiking pole, but it bit the pole and pulled it away. Colin then tried to toss his backpack over to entice the bear with the food inside. It didn’t take.

What happened next was the single most terrifying experience of Colin’s life — the bear charged Colin.

Colin threw his bike at the bear, but it crashed over top, barreled into him and bit the side of his torso. It gripped Colin’s body in its jaws and tossed him. It picked Colin up again and carried him nearly 50 feet. He soon find himself being crushed underneath the weight of the bear, and it began chewing on Colin’s leg and foot.

Colin tried fighting back, attempting to peel the bear’s gums but the bear bit his hand and pinned him down harder.

“I was kind of at a loss of what to do,” says Colin. “I was yelling aloud, Why? Stop! Thinking all the horrible thoughts you have. Is this it for me? Bye to my wife and kids. Am I going to succumb to being eaten by this bear? Am I going to die of my injuries after he’s done mauling me?”

Then Colin remembered his pocketknife.

Mustering all the strength he had, he dragged his arms from underneath the bear, reached into his pants pocket, pulled the knife out and opened it.

He drew back his arm and stabbed down at the bear’s neck.

“Amazingly, the bear immediately let go of me and retreated back,” says Colin.

After a few moments, Colin used his knife to cut off his shirt sleeve and made a tourniquet for his leg, all while watching the bear as it stood at a distance looking back at Colin. After what felt like an eternity, the bear scampered into the woods.

Colin dragged himself over to his bike, propped it up and tried to mount it, but he fell over top.

Laying in the dirt, Colin was bloody, beaten and exhausted. He didn’t know if he could get up again. But then he started to pump himself up.

“I told myself, You’ve got one chance to do this,” says Colin. “Time to muster what you have. So I got back on the bike, it was actually surprisingly easier the second time. I got on and got pedaling, and it was successful. I just started pedaling away.”

Colin thought back on his time as a long-distance runner in high school. He knew the feeling of exhaustion, and more importantly, he knew how to fight through it.

He rode and rode, and rode some more. He rode for three and a half kilometres until he hit a downhill slope, and flew down into the logging camp. The camp workers immediately called 9-1-1.

The BC Air Ambulance arrived and flew Colin to the only place that could treat the severity of his wounds — Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).

World-class coordinated and specialized care

At VGH, Trauma Surgeon Dr. David Ko assessed the extent of Colin’s injuries: multiple puncture wounds from teeth and claws with the most extensive damage on his left side. Dr. Ko and the specialized vascular team at VGH worked together to surgically repair Colin’s badly mauled body.

“The injury on his left flank was only one cell layer away from the kidney, and from all the internal organs,” says Dr. Ko. “Colin was very fortunate that didn’t pierce.”

To prevent infection, Dr. Ko examined, sterilized, cleaned and sutured all of Colin’s many puncture wounds. Colin also required extensive assessment to ensure he had no unidentified intra-abdominal or kidney damage. The complexity of Colin’s injuries required expert and coordinated care from many specialized teams at VGH, including infection control.

Recovering from the attack

Colin’s stay at VGH lasted 24 days. During his time in hospital he was cared for by a myriad of physicians, nurses, and specialists whose mission was to make Colin recover as best as possible.

He is now back at home to continue his recovery in Campbell River with a comprehensive outpatient care package, which he continues to follow to this day.

“I feel so grateful [for the] whole team at VGH,” says Colin. “They were there for me when I needed it most, and returned me home to my wife and children.”