OTTAWA -- You may not immediately associate the intensive care unit of a hospital with a smiling face.  Unless you have crossed paths with Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng at the Ottawa Hospital. 

“It’s one of my missions to have that positive outlook.  We are working at our best when we are not stressed, when we are not thinking about the worst-case scenario.  So I’ve always tried to keep things relatively light at work.  And smile.”

But that worst-case scenario was top of mind for those working the front line at the ICU as the World Health Organization declared a pandemic back in March.

“It was extremely nerve-wracking initially, especially when you hear stories of what was going on in Italy, and what was going on in New York.  And so when we start to see some cases coming through, I mean tension was high,” said Dr. Kyeremanteng in an interview with CTV News Ottawa.

“And then slowly those nerves start to settle when we got accustomed to what the patients looked like and what to expect from the patients.  And got a sense that we could manage those cases and weren’t being overrun cause of the measures that people were doing out in society with social distancing.”

Dr. Kyeremanteng, speaking to us from the ICU at the General Campus, says it was quite the roller-coaster ride in those early days. At the same time, a unique experience pulled staff together, as most faced a pandemic for the first time.

“We’ve really bonded as a team.  We essentially have a common purpose now, and that’s to do our best to manage our COVID-19 patients and in some ways we’ve never been as close as we are now.  And some of that is the rallying the community has done too, and seeing some of the support that’s out there.”

It has been a confidence builder too, for the team, learning the traits of a mysterious new virus as they faced COVID-19 for the first time.

“There was a lot of learning as we go. Because the virus in some ways behaved uniquely, for example a lot more kidney injury - patients needing to be on dialysis compared to other viruses.  When they were put on ventilators they behaved differently than patients who had typical lung infections.” 

Those patients sometimes stayed on a ventilator for a week or longer.  The ICU team also saw patients forming blood clots more often than they expected.  But Dr. Kyeremanteng says the key is that their team of doctors was, in fact, learning.  They started to see the patterns and started to adapt.  And they were seeing patients pull through, and leave the ICU fully recovered.

At each site of the Ottawa Hospital, on both the General and Civic Campuses, there are 28 beds allocated for COVID-19 patients, but Dr. Kyeremanteng says that fortunately they were never pushing capacity.  On average, those units saw 16-20 patients, with numbers coming down even further in recent days.

As of May 28, the Ottawa Hospital says 32 people have been treated in the ICU since the start of the pandemic. Ten patients in the ICU have died, while 21 patients have recovered and been discharged from the unit. 

Being able to manage, and to hold back the tide has been a relief for the team who are now able to relax a little.  Fear was a factor in the initial days when Dr. Kyeremanteng says he had to make a conscious decision with his wife Cathy, a psychologist, to “control what they could control.”

“Our family knew there was risks associated with being an ICU doc, but we’ve done our best to adapt.  Certainly, the fear of COVID-19, we just told ourselves, you’re going to be safe at work, do all the appropriate measures to keep yourself at lowest risk and we’ll deal with it as it comes.”

“My family is great though, I’ve had tons of positive support and I couldn’t do it without them.”

The father of three boys says in addition to staying positive himself, he has made it a mission to try and boost morale at the workplace as well.

“We had an initiative where we were feeding front-line staff.  We started that because we saw the fear in the eyes of our colleagues and we really wanted to do that to improve morale.  It is an important part of what I do and what our team does. It is vital to have that positive outlook on things. ”