One nice thing about the drive home for May Tam these days, is how fast the commute is. With the 40 and Décarie almost empty, “I can get home to Laval in 15 minutes,” she laughs.

As chief cardiovascular perfusionist at the MUHC, Tam is responsible for protecting patients’ brains and other organs, by cleaning and oxygenating their bypassed blood during cardiac surgery.

Tam is busy these days – about as much as usual – as heart surgery is generally urgent, and still needs to be performed even during the pandemic, in addition to new COVID-related emergencies. “We’re anticipating the peak of it in the coming weeks,” says the Chomedey resident, “and of course elective surgeries have been cancelled; but the number-one killers are still cardiac events.” She says her shifts are still the same, in addition to being on call to respond to emergencies which include COVID-19 patients who require intervention, whose lungs may have maximized the use of a ventilator and need further intervention, like an ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine.

For non-COVID patients, surgical prep routines are the same, “but if we suspect they are positive then we really double down.” That she says, means double gowns, masks, shields, double hats – all the protective gear, and we limit the amount of people coming in and out of the room. There are many procedures to follow, and then we change our scrubs and do it all over again for the next patient.”

“It’s very rigorous, we’ve been practicing over and over again. It’s already taxing to do surgery and now this is added on. The N95 mask is not easy to breathe through or to work with; it’s very tight on your face and after several hours in a surgery can be very uncomfortable.”

Tam says morale among her colleagues remains good. “We are very focused on the task at hand. We are all trained in a way that the patient comes first, and even if we fear bringing something home to our families or getting sick, when we go to work it kind of goes away. We are mindful, but we do what we do. We go in.”

She’s no stranger to widespread health crises, “but this is the worst one I’ve ever seen myself, the first of this extent.” Same she says, for her husband Ramzi Majaj – also a clinical perfusionist – at the CHUM.

“We do see a lot of influenza cases that turn bad and need our support and I believe that’s under-reported,” she says, but to see this same life-threatening situation all over the world… it’s massive.”

On that way home she notices other changes. “It’s kind of eerie outside. I normally decompress at a coffee shop, now I go straight home.” And people are different. “It feels like nobody trusts anybody. We’re looking at each other, but not in the eyes. I worry about what we have become.” At home she doesn’t tune out COVID news completely. “I watch about an hour, to see if there’s any escalation, and predict what my next day will be like.”

“Life must go on; this could last months but you can’t think that it’s the end of the world. I really believe we’re doing the best we can, and one thing I can say for sure is all of us in the field, we’re going in headstrong. For us COVID-19 is another challenge we have to face, and as a team we’re facing it together.”

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