OTTAWA -- In the early days of the pandemic, when it was determined there would be a need for a unit dedicated to COVID-19 patients at the Ottawa Hospital, and when most of us were stocking up on toilet paper and learning terms like self-isolating, Dr. Samantha Halman raised her hand to be one of the first on the front-lines. 

“I’m certainly not the only one who volunteered.  We’re a group of 40 in general/internal medicine and many of us volunteered.  But for me, it was, I think, a sense of responsibility and also, I’m still relatively young.  I’m healthy.  And I don’t have anyone at home.”

Dr. Halman says that’s a big burden on a lot of health care workers, worrying about the process if you have a family at home, worrying about whether you can keep them safe.  “So to me, it made sense to be one of the first ones to volunteer as we built this unit.”

In that unit, which can accommodate up to 72 patients between the General and Civic campuses (not including those requiring intensive care) doctors work in pairs, with two attending physicians dedicated to each patient. Dr. Halman says with a new disease it makes a world of difference to have a colleague to “bounce ideas off of.”  The other benefit is safety.

“To have someone there to spot you for donning and doffing (personal protective equipment).  Because you know we know that we’re exposed more on a daily basis when we’re on a COVID team.”

Dr. Halman says to face a pandemic, seven years into her career in medicine has been challenging. “I hope this is my only pandemic!”  But maybe not for the reasons you’d think. 

“It’s not the most challenging medical work.  We know what people have here, but the human aspect of what we are bringing to it on top of the medical care is very important.”

With visitors not allowed into the Ottawa Hospital, calling families, keeping them updated, spending time with patients now makes up a huge part of the day for both doctors and nurses.

“We have had incidents when patients are really not doing well and the health care workers at the hospital were really the only people to hold their hands.  And it’s a difficult role but it’s one that I think is just as important as the medical care we’re giving to patients”

Dr. Halman says it can be tough to disconnect when she gets home.  She has made a concerted effort to avoid social media, “It can put you down a very scary spiral.”  

She focuses instead on puzzles and cooking to help pass the time all on her own.  “I’m an extrovert so the isolation is tough.”  But she says she knows the work she is doing is what she is meant to be doing.  And she says she’s hearing that from colleagues as well.

“I work with (medical) residents a lot and our residents have been amazing in general and internal medicine.  And I asked one of them whether or not they felt that, being the front line people, if that deterred them from wanting to do this as a career and I was so encouraged when they said absolutely not.  This is why I want to do this, this has only reaffirmed why we’re here.”

Sentiments echoed by Dr.Salman, “I feel very privileged to be part of this group of people.  To be here for patients.”