COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured Physiotherapy

Inside the COVID-19 unit: Helping patients regain their strength through physiotherapy

Hammad Aqeel

Hammad Aqeel is a physiotherapist at Sunnybrook. For 10+ weeks he worked on our COVID-19 Unit. This specialized floor opened to provide care to hospitalized patients affected by the virus. Below, he shares what life has been like in the weeks he worked on the front-lines of this evolving pandemic.

How long have you been a physiotherapist?

Two years. I started working at Sunnybrook in the Schulich Heart Program, helping patients recover functionally after heart surgery. For me, it’s very rewarding working in the hospital setting with patients and their families, seeing them progress. I get to help acutely ill patients get stronger and back to their lives.

How did you become a part of the COVID unit?

I volunteered as staff were being recruited for the unit because I had experience working with cardiac surgery patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) setting. In the ICU, my patients were on ventilators, which are machines that help them breathe. Through active mobility and breathing exercises, patients are able to wean off of the ventilators and return to their previous level of function. I thought my skill set would be a good fit.

Another reason I volunteered is because my partner is a nurse in a Toronto-area emergency department, and she was already on the frontlines screening patients. She never hesitated going to work, so she inspired me to help out where I can. At the time I volunteered, I didn’t really think about all the different ways this would affect my life.

What has the work been like?

At first, I was very anxious about all the different situations that could arise and how I would keep safe. But from day one, I felt very protected as we have access to appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), safety officers and the updated infection prevention and control protocols. The team here is very collaborative and many volunteered to be here, and are great to work with.

I’ve adjusted to the day-to-day processes, but that said, policies and procedures are always changing. We started out as a COVID-19 ward, then it became a full ICU about four weeks into my placement. Working in an environment with frequent changes in patient populations, policies and procedures has been stressful, but we all try to take it one day at a time.

What does your work entail?

My role focuses on helping patients rehabilitate while preventing respiratory complications. I often help patients recover functionally after they have been intubated. This procedure is hard on the body, as a tube is inserted through the throat down into the windpipe so a ventilator can breathe for them. Even if they haven’t been intubated, prolonged bed rest can weaken muscles. I help patients preserve and build up their functional strength by doing things like helping them sit up, perform bed and breathing exercises and eventually walk again.

These areas of focus apply for COVID-19 patients, but if they are more critically ill, there are different aspects I focus on during treatment. One thing we’ve been doing frequently is “proning” patients, as research has found placing them on their stomachs helps with breathing over time on a ventilator. Even for patients not on a ventilator, if they are able to prone themselves, that appears to help improve their oxygen levels and breathing.

On the COVID-19 unit, we’re also receiving patients from all over the hospital, including those sustaining burns, traumas or strokes. That means we have to be very adaptable with the kind of treatments we are using. Anyone can get COVID-19, so we see all types of patient populations.

How are you doing now?

My overall anxiety has improved, but no matter what, working in this environment means there is a level of background stress that can have numerous effects. A lot of us are just feeling more tired in general. That’s not because we are doing more physical labour, but rather coping with the heightened stress and day-to-day changes that COVID-19 is causing, both inside and outside of the hospital.

At home, my partner and I can really relate to each other’s work settings, so it’s nice to have that deep understanding. COVID-19 news is everywhere, and in the beginning, I was really immersed in it. Now, I try to limit checking the news to just once a day for any big changes. Creating a bit of an escape at home helps me manage my mental health and level of worry.

Watch Hammad's story featured on UNTV

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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