university health network

Health-care heroes at the University Health Network

Nearly 75 per cent of all health-care workers in Ontario are women, and every one of them is a hero! Here are just a few of their stories.

VISHNUKA ARULSUNDARAM | Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

It was during the SARS crisis that Vishnuka Arulsundaram decided on her career path. She was a master’s student studying microbiology and volunteered at a cancer centre. “SARS exposed me to infection control practitioners (ICP) and the role they play, especially for vulnerable patients,” she says. Arulsundaram spent four years as a registered nurse before transitioning to infection control and says that experience solidified her desire to help prevent the spread of infections in vulnerable patient populations. “And now I’m doing just that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre,” she says of her work with the University Health Network. Working in this field, Arulsundaram says she knew a pandemic was coming but didn’t know when. “We always thought it would be a novel strain of influenza, not coronavirus,” she says. The most difficult challenge for Arulsundaram in this time has been physical distancing. “My daycare right now is my mom, and we have chosen not to bring my daughter back and forth from my parents, to practise physical distancing and not risk my parents’ health because kids can serve as carriers,” she says. “It’s very difficult to be separated from my daughter right now.” It is the nurses around Arulsundaram that keep her motivated. “They always check in on me and tell me how thankful they are to have me as their ICP,” she says. “In reality, it’s me who is thankful to work with our wonderful RNs. These nurses come in every day, pandemic or not, and give it their best to care for ill patients.”


KAREN AZAVEDO |  Toronto Western Hospital

A few weeks after occupational therapist Karen Azavedo began working with COVID-19 patients, she began to show symptoms of the virus. “I developed a cough and tickle in my throat, and, as per our hospital’s policies, I had to be tested and sent home,” she says. In mid-April, the test at Toronto Western Hospital which is part of the University Health Network confirmed that Azavedo had the virus, and she began self-isolating at a colleague’s home in the spare bedroom. “The hardest part is having to leave my family and being away from them until I’m well,” says Azavedo, who left her husband and 18-month-old daughter as she entered isolation. Azavedo, who has been an occupational therapist for 14 years, says she chose the profession because it allows her to work with patients to maximize their function after a hospitalization or illness. “There is something wonderful about being able to help others in a period of uncertainty in their lives,” she says. But she notes that never in her wildest dreams did she think she would face a pandemic like this in her career. “Once the pandemic hit, the hospital had to adapt and restructure in a short time frame. An entire floor was devoted to COVID-19 patients, and I was assigned to be the first occupational therapist on the COVID-19 unit,” says Azavedo. Her focus was to maximize function for patients as they recover and plan their discharge. Currently, Azavedo is thankful for the support she’s received from colleagues and friends and is grateful she can see her husband and daughter through video calls.


ZELIA SOUTER | Toronto General Hospital

For more than 25 years, Zelia Souter has been part of the nursing team at Toronto General Hospital which is part of the University Health Network and is now a manager in the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre’s cardiology unit. Her desire for patient care was sparked back in her teen years. “I had volunteered in a hospital as a teenager, and while there, I observed nurses expressing kindness and compassion for patients who were in pain or struggling with a new diagnosis,” says Souter. “They created an environment that helped people to recover and heal.” Souter says she always knew a pandemic was possible, but the effects of COVID-19 have drastically changed her work life. “During the pandemic, I am acutely aware of the need to communicate effectively, ensure staff are following new processes and policies, and more than ever, I need to be available to answer questions,” says Souter. She says her biggest challenge has been to remain focused on positive action. “Others look to me for how to behave, so I always try to do my best to remain calm and use a rational approach when solving issues,” she says. Souter has been working long hours and the exhaustion has also been a challenge. “One Saturday afternoon, I left the house to take my dog for a walk. When I turned the corner, one of my neighbours came outside and clapped for all health-care workers and said thank you,” says Souter. “She said she did not see me for some time and wanted to express her gratitude. After a difficult week, I was instantly energized.”


Dr. Andrea Furlan

ANDREA FURLAN | Toronto Rehabilitation Institute

With more than two decades of experience under her belt, Dr. Andrea Furlan never thought she would witness a pandemic of this magnitude in her career, and it has changed her practice drastically. She has converted almost all of her patients to telephone and video consults, and for those who come in person, she is wearing a protective mask. “It is hard to show you are smiling and empathetic when you have a mask covering 50 per cent of your face,” she says. “When I call patients on the phone, I also remember to smile, since people can ‘hear’ your smile.” Dr. Furlan is a physician and senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute which is part of the University Health Network specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. “I care for patients living with chronic pain, who face unique fears around COVID-19,” she says. Dr. Furlan says her patients began flooding her with questions about how the virus might impact their condition, and she knew there must be more people out there with the same concerns. So she created the hashtag #COVIDpain to launch a Twitter chat. “Topics explored concerns over stress making pain worse to worries about pain medications being backlogged or contraindicated,” says Dr. Furlan. Based on the success of the first chat, she has decided to facilitate a second one as well. When it comes to her own coping strategies, Dr. Furlan says it’s the messages from people that motivate her to keep going.

Article exclusive to TRNTO