Owen Mooney is a healthy, fit, front-line doctor who had been fighting the coronavirus in Winnipeg hospital wards, but never expected that the virus would knock him out cold.
The 44-year-old internal medicine specialist has been on call 24/7 for the past week, treating and admitting wave after wave of patients with COVID-19 at St. Boniface Hospital.
In that time, seven or eight of his own patients died from the virus.
It was the most “heartbreaking and difficult and emotional week I’ve ever worked,” he said. “Not only numbers but patients and families being isolated and dying alone. Which is not the way things should be.”
Mooney was achy and fatigued from the “harrowing” week on Saturday, which is not uncommon, he said, but he got tested Sunday when the soreness and symptoms rapidly worsened. His results came back positive that evening, and he said it’s the sickest he’s ever been in his life.
Now that he has COVID-19, the avid runner is so weak he can barely sit up. He’s isolated away from his family in his basement, while they wait on their test results.
“I’ve seen the effects of COVID and how quickly it can affect those vulnerable. Now that I’m experiencing it I can see it’s a lethal disease for those who don’t have much of a reserve. It’s terrifying,” Mooney said.
“Sitting up takes effort. Productive cough. Muscle aches. Sore throat. My taste and smell are gone. And this happened within a period of six to eight hours.”
WATCH | Dr. Owen Mooney talks about his COVID ordeal:
‘Difficult to deal with the numbers’
Mooney can’t remember a breach in his use of PPE. He and a physician assistant had been managing the care of more than 40 patients with COVID-19 — including admitting patients from the outbreak at the Victoria General Hospital and managing the flow of patients coming from within St. Boniface itself.
“It is somewhat like a MASH field hospital. It is relatively chaotic. The numbers have obviously been escalating exponentially and it’s difficult to deal with the numbers,” he said.
“You have a health-care staff that are unfamiliar with dealing with how sick these patients come in at.”
The unique environment, virus and attention to donning and doffing PPE is “mentally exhausting,” he said,
Mooney is one of more than 350 physicians who have signed a letter to the premier, urging him to support a stronger public health response and put emergency funding toward more contact tracing, testing, staff and support for vulnerable and low income patients.
“I think you’ve had an amazing ground roll of support of physicians supporting escalating measures to stop the spread of this virus. The only time to act is now. We don’t have more time,” he said.
“The system is on the brink of collapse…. We’re truly at a tipping point and may actually be well past it, to be honest with you. And I really worry about the next upcoming weeks.”
‘Really, literally hit home’
It’s been hard battling COVID-19 at home too.
“I’ve never seen him this sick. He’s a strong tough guy. He doesn’t go down like this for anything,” said his wife, Susan Krepart, who is symptomatic and waiting on her own results.
“It really, literally hit home. And I love my husband, I know he works hard, and just scared and angry that he caught it.”
Krepart issued a statement about the family’s situation on Facebook — urging people to “stay the f— home” and take the virus seriously — which has been shared over 1,000 times as of Tuesday evening.
She didn’t have many close contact calls to make after she got tested, she said, but knows it’s not the same for everyone.
“Pop those bubbles. If you can make a mental list right now of how many people you would have to call and it’s big, those aren’t easy calls to make…. I kept wanting to apologize even though there’s nothing I did. Just take it seriously.”
Call to staff ICU beds
While Mooney is hopeful for the pandemic plan that Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa will reveal to hospital staff this week, he wants to see how intensive care unit capacity will be expanded to meet the needs of fifty patients, not five.
“I am terrified,” he said, adding he believes there’s been a misrepresentation of what the province can actually handle.
The weeks ahead will only bring more patients, he said, and the hospitals are already overwhelmed.
“We don’t have the staff. There needs to be a concerted effort to staff those beds. Whatever contingency plan becomes public in the next few days, we need to have the bodies to safely staff those critically ill patients.”
He commends the staff who have been working their hearts out in times they’ve never seen before. Despite his illness and weakness he sat up to issue a plea to Manitobans.
“We as Manitobans have to take it upon ourselves to go further than the current public health orders. You need to self-isolate, you need to maintain your bubble, limit your contact with outside,” he said.
“Wash your hands, social distance, mask when outside. It’s imperative we do these things now. We’re unfortunately only at the beginning of this exponential growth and I worry what the next two weeks will bring.”