How a paramedic's act of kindness brought solace in a chaotic emergency department
[Jan 9, 2022: Blair Crawford]
Ottawa paramedic Tom Cholewa. (CREDIT: Tony Caldwell /Postmedia)
It was a fleeting moment in the bedlam of a hospital emergency department, an act of kindness and comfort to remind us the COVID-19 pandemic is about more than just daily case counts, graphs of ICU capacity versus admissions, and tallies of deaths and the number of people on ventilators.
The patient that Ottawa paramedic Tom Cholewa and his partner brought to the Queensway Carleton Hospital on Tuesday afternoon was in her 90s and had dementia. After waiting seven hours on her stretcher to be seen, she was agitated and angry. She wanted to go home.
“We tried to calm her down and explain what was going on. But she was irritable and restless and crying,” Cholewa said.
“She kept calling us over, then she grabbed one of our hands and pulled us closer. That really seemed to calm her down. She just wanted company. She was probably lonely, scared, confused. She just wanted to feel safe.”
Cholewa found a chair and sat down beside her.
“It was something I’d never done before,” he said. “She grabbed my hand and I noticed she was getting more and more comfortable. So I decided to get more comfortable, too. I put my arm around her and patted her back and she started kissing my hand. I’d never experienced that before. But it’s nice. If she feels that comfortable, then we must be doing something right.”
Nurse Kassandra Johnson, the shift supervisor in the QCH Emergency Department that afternoon, was so moved that she snapped a photo of the moment, which, with permission, she later shared on Facebook.
Ottawa paramedic Tom Cholewa comforts an elderly woman as she waits to be seen at the Queensway Carleton Hospital. (CREDIT: Kassandra Johnson / QCH)
“Hope isn’t all lost,” Johnson wrote on her Facebook page. “Life in hospitals is pretty terrible right now. Extreme over capacity issues combined with staffing challenges, very sick patients and of course COVID means we’re once again on a tipping point.
“On a terrible day like today, when you feel like you just can’t win, it’s these small moments of compassion and kindness demonstrated by the amazing humans we have the pleasure to work with that keep us coming back, despite it all. We are so fortunate to work with such amazing people.”
Emergency departments were already under strain before COVID-19, said Johnson, who has worked at the Queensway Carleton for 13 years.
“Even pre-COVID, the hospitals have been in a crisis for some time, and unfortunately it means that people wait for an extended period of time with the paramedics,” Johnson said. “It’s obviously not ideal, but it’s just something that can’t be helped. And often the patients are elderly people with dementia and are confused. It’s a really difficult situation for everybody.
“This poor little lady was just so confused and really having a hard time and there’s not much we can do. But this very nice young man just sat down beside her and put his arm around her. She just snuggled right in and held his hand and started kissing it. For hours. It was quite sweet. It calmed her right down and she was able to stay calm for two more hours.”
The woman was still at the hospital when Johnson’s shift ended, but was eventually seen by a doctor and sent home.
Last week, the Queensway Carleton declared a “code orange,” limiting some services because of the number of staff off work due to COVID-19. On Tuesday, the hospital was at 107 per cent capacity, with 70 COVID-19 patients, three of whom were in intensive care. The hospital has two ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Ottawa Public Health.
“When they see outbreaks on in-patient units, they start closing beds,” Johnson said. “They close beds upstairs, but they don’t close the emerg door. We’re open 24/7.
“It’s hard for us. It’s hard for patients. Everyone’s on edge. You lose that … I don’t want to say friendliness. That’s not the right word, but you lose those moments like this one with Tom. Everyone gets caught up in their own worlds, their own struggles, their own stress. That’s why it was so nice to see that it’s not all gone.”
Kassandra Johnson, a shift supervisor in the Emergency Department at the Queensway Carleton Hospital meets with Ottawa paramedic Tom Cholewa. Johnson posted a message on Facebook after being moved by Cholewa’s kindness toward a elderly patient. (CREDIT: PHOTO BY SUPPLIES)
Cholewa said it’s rare to experience such a human moment on the job.
“I was imagining what I would do if it was my grandma waiting there for hours and hours, what I’d want to do to make her comfortable,” he said.
“When she kissed my arm, I felt a really warm feeling in my heart that I haven’t felt at work for quite some time. In our line of work, it’s always, ‘Go, go go!’ We respond to a call, take them to the hospital, drop them off, then it’s off to the next call.
“Even as we were driving away, I said to my partner, ‘Man, that was really nice.’ You don’t often have a moment like that.'”
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Note: Materials provided above by Blair Crawford. Content may be edited for style and length.
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