Christmas COVID in French intensive care: Fear, fatigue and regret

From the intensive care unit in France where he spends the holidays, COVID-19 patient David Daniel Sebbagh said he had one overriding regret: not having been vaccinated.

“The vaccine is not a danger,” the 52-year-old said while hospitalized in Marseille. “It’s choosing life.”

ICU Chief Medical Officer Dr Julien Carvelli tries to keep his team motivated as they spend another Christmas caring for patients on breathing machines, periodically rolling them back and forth, back and forth.

The staff are tired, the omicron variant is falling apart, and the beds in the unit fill up quickly. “We’re afraid we don’t have enough space,” Carvelli said.

La Timone Hospital in Marseille, one of the largest hospitals in France, has withstood wave after wave of COVID-19. On Christmas Eve, medical staff decorated a tree in the hallway and seized a moment for a communal meal in their scrubs, trying to maintain some semblance of holiday spirit between rounds.

The hospital is allowing families to visit seriously ill loved ones in intensive care, provided they are careful. Amélie Khayat paid daily visits to her husband, Ludo, 41, who spent 24 days in a coma and on life support. The couple touched their heads as she sat on her bed. Now strong enough to stand, he rose to give her a goodbye hug.

In an adjoining room, a 40-year-old patient lay unconscious on the brink of death, her young son’s winter hat placed on her stomach. In another, a parent had left a Christian icon leaning on a patient’s tray.

Down the hall, Katy Zalinian waited impatiently to visit her cousin. Later, she walked into his bedroom in full protective gear and lovingly touched his leg.

While around 90% of French adults are vaccinated against the coronavirus and around 40% have received a booster, most COVID-19 patients in intensive care at La Timone are not vaccinated.

“I regret it, very, very, very much,” said patient Sebbagh. “I got caught up in things. I thought the vaccine was not necessarily a good thing. He recalled that when his COVID-19 symptoms were at their worst, “I didn’t know where I was going. Nothing was clear in my head…I waited for hours and it hurt.

Sebbagh’s wife, Esther, described his terror: “Our life was shattered this week… I thought I would lose him. He still tested positive for the virus and says all that matters now is trying to recover.

“If I had been vaccinated, I wouldn’t have been in such a level of intensive care,” he said. “The vaccine is not a danger but a possibility of escape, of avoiding something more serious.”

France is now experiencing its highest daily infection rates of the pandemic as the omicron variant roams the country. Carvelli, the head of intensive care in Marseille, fears that hospitals will soon be “overwhelmed”.

“We are already in a tense situation, with very few places available,” he said. “We are fed up. We always strive to do our job in the best possible way… but the longer this goes on, the more people get tired.

Two things make this Christmas particularly difficult, Carvelli said. More and more staff are testing positive in the current omicron push and therefore unavailable for work. And some colleagues leave the profession outright because of the pressure.

“We always try to have little special moments during the work day or at night, to come together to celebrate,” he said. “It’s also strange for the patients, who are deprived of Christmas.”

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