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A NEW APPRECIATION FOR HEALTH CARE

Throughout her lengthy career, Christa has served as a nurse to thousands of patients in every department of Horizon's Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital. When her dad suddenly became ill and nearly died, Christa gained a new appreciation of what it's like for the family member of a loved one needing critical medical care.

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Christa Chase knows her way around Horizon's Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital (DECRH). A Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) for 17 years, Christa has floated through every medical department throughout her career. She now practices in Family Medicine, where she works mostly with stroke patients in an acute care medical unit at the DECRH.

Christa has helped thousands of people through as many crises but surprisingly, these experiences weren't enough to prepare her for what was about to confront her own family.

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GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION

Christa's parents, Lawrence (Larry) and Judy Somerville are retirees who returned in January from a trip to New Zealand and Australia to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. It was an enjoyable time together but sleeping in their own bed again also held great appeal. Otherwise healthy, shortly after the Fredericton couple returned, they both experienced symptoms of a cold.

When the symptoms persisted, the couple wondered if they'd picked up something on their travels. They decided to confine themselves to their home to avoid spreading their germs to the rest of the family.

"Your mom's got a fever," Larry would tell family members wanting to visit. "You shouldn't come over...we wouldn't want you to catch this," he said.

Although it was difficult to stay away, Christa and her family respected their parents' wishes. After two long shifts at the hospital, Christa awoke at home the next morning to several middle-of-the-night texts from her brother, Troy and her mom. Christa knew something was up and wondered which parent had become sicker.

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SYMPTOMS WORSEN

Larry was the sick one.

"I found out dad had taken a turn for the worst and his breathing had changed significantly by the time he got to the hospital," Christa remembered. Typical of Larry, he joked and socialized with medical staff and patients waiting in the ED, leading the attending physician to remark to the family he wasn't presenting as sick as he truly was.

"He kept talking to us and we had to tell him to stop talking because his oxygen levels would go so low," Christa recalled.

In a few short hours, Larry's seemingly innocuous infection would spiral toward a brush with death, as nurses and physicians intervened to save Larry's life.

By the time Christa arrived, her dad was experiencing ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening buildup of acids in the blood from high blood sugar. He had also developed pneumonia and sepsis, another potentially lethal condition that arises when the body's response to infection harms its own tissues and organs.

Larry was rushed to the ICU while his family anxiously awaited hopeful news of improvement. Instead, things further deteriorated-almost minute-by-minute--as Larry faced multi-system failure.

SYSTEM FAILURE

When his kidneys began to fail, the family was told Larry needed to be transported to Horizon's Saint John Regional Hospital for dialysis. But first, his blood pressure and breathing needed to be stabilized.

"At points he was so unstable, even repositioning him would cause his oxygen levels to drop or his blood pressure would go up or down," said Christa.

Larry's condition was by no means improving so the medical team decided on an emergency transfer to Saint John. Christa chokes back tears when she recalls the moment. "Your fear is, he's not going to wake up."

The family hurried back to Larry's room to see him before he was wheeled to the waiting ambulance. Because it was touch and go as to whether he would even survive, staff took the rare step of permitting Christa and her brother Troy to walk out to the ambulance bay to see their dad…possibly for the last time. The scene had medical professionals from various specialties working to urgently stabilize the failing patient.

"People were running," Christa recalled. "There were a couple of Respiratory Therapists (RT's), a couple of nurses there, the paramedics were all in the ambulance bay thinking this isn't going to happen."

By then, Larry was experiencing Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a rapidly progressive disease occurring in critically ill patients. It can cause fluid to leak into the lungs making breathing nearly impossible.

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TAKES CONTROL

While Christa has a long list of staff and physicians for whom she is grateful, in that instance, an RT directed the unfolding events before they could devolve into chaos.

"Sabrina really took control of the situation, stayed extremely calm and professional and knew exactly what she needed," remembered Christa. "And they were able to stabilize him to get him down there. It was really scary to watch that."

Sabrina is Sabrina Tung-Shun, a co-worker of Christa's. She began her career in 2007 as a Registered Respiratory Therapist at the DECRH and was responsible for Larry's airway and ventilation during the ambulance transport to Saint John.

"When things are going wrong, if you're able to just stay calm and keep a level head, that helps you think through things a little better and make the situation a little easier," said Sabrina. "It also helps to keep the people around you calm. By trying to maintain that in yourself, it helps the overall situation and hopefully helps to make things go smoother."

After the ambulance left, the family also made the anxious drive to Saint John. Upon arrival, a doctor calmly explained Larry's condition to the family and the urgent need for him to begin dialysis.

Despite being a seasoned nurse herself, Christa became emotional when she remembered the nurse who started dialysis with Larry, who stayed late that night until she was sure he was stable.

"You realize these people are often doing overtime-and there were many that did this-time away from their families to save your family member," said Christa. 

LOOKING FOR SIGNS OF HOPE

The next few days rolled by at an agonizingly slow pace, as Christa and her family looked for any sign that Larry would pull through. They just wanted him to live, but a short time after recovering from sedation, Christa witnessed a nurse singing to her dad, making him laugh and Larry playfully returning the verbal jabs.

"And we thought, my dad's sense of humour is back," recalled Christa. "Everything's going to be OK."

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A FRESH PERSPECTIVE

Experiences like these are most often life-altering to all involved, especially the patient and family. For Christa, it's given her a fresh perspective of her own practice and a new appreciation of what it's like for family members of very sick patients. She's learned to be more patient and is more aware of how crucial her interactions are with the patient and family.

"We forget, for a lot of these people, this is the first time they've ever experienced anything," said Christa, noting people are going through the worst moments of their lives.

"We need to make sure every interaction they have with us is as positive as can be and to give them that reassurance that taking the time to sit down and talk and to listen, to hold their hand because it's the little things that really matter."

Christa stifled a tear as she recollected the many moments of compassion she and her family received. Like the housekeeper at the DECRH who found extra pillows and blankets for the family and kindly tidied up the room. Or the ICU clerk who was so reassuring to the panicked family. And the RN, Christine McMaster, who agreed to work overtime and be away from her own family, so she could continue to care for Larry.

Larry Somerville doesn't remember much of the ordeal but Christa confirms he has recovered well at home with wife Judy, a retired RN, keeping close watch. The avid outdoorsman and former owner of Atlantic Fire and Safety is slowly returning to his many community and social activities…and his yard work. Larry recently insisted using the snow blower to do his driveway following one of Fredericton's frequent snowfalls.

What Larry cannot remember, Christa will never forget. The kindness and compassion she and her family experienced and the time staff took to be with them will resound with her forever. She has a new appreciation for the needs of patients and their families.

"We need to be-all of us-whether it's respiratory, doctors-we need to spend a lot more time at the bedside with families and patients instead of behind a computer."


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