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Alex Siu was hard hit by COVID-19 and his son credits Markham Stouffville Hospital for his father’s recovery

When Alex Man-Chung Siu was admitted to Markham Stouffville Hospital (MSH) in April with a fever and cough, little did he know that he would not set foot in his home again for 114 days.

For his wife, two sons and his mother, much of the summer of 2020 was spent in suspension — while Siu spent a full month intubated, essentially in a coma.

This is what COVID-19 can look like, at its worst.

For Siu’s family, there were endless questions. Would Alex return home? Would he be the same husband and father they knew before he fell ill? Possibly the scariest of all, would there be long-term health effects, and would he walk again?

Siu was a 57-year-old strong and healthy man when he contracted the virus. Before entering the hospital, he felt the onset of flu-like symptoms: muscle aches, lethargy, a persistent fever. He had been exposed at his workplace, where seven others were subsequently infected. He was the second to fall ill.

“For a week, I managed my symptoms at home,” he says. “But then it started getting harder to breathe. By the time my sons took me to Markham Stouffville Hospital, my breathing was so laboured I could no longer talk in full sentences.”

His sons took him to the COVID-19 Assessment Centre at MSH.

“I was admitted into the hospital right away. For safety reasons, Ryan and Ian couldn’t stay with me. It would be months before I saw their faces in person again. It was confirmed I had the virus and the doctors told me I was very sick. My thoughts were with my family and my body was in the hands of the medical staff. I had to trust them to take care of me now.”

Siu was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) that same evening.

“The nurses arranged a conference call so I could hear the voices of my family… maybe for the last time. Then I was sedated and put on a ventilator.”

Luckily for Siu, the staff and doctors at MSH were well prepared even though, back in April, there were a lot of unknowns about how the disease progresses.

“We were able to get ahead of the game and anticipate what was going to happen,” says infectious disease specialist Dr. Valéria Sales. “From February, we were working with our colleagues across the GTA to plan for care for patients, ensuring we had cutting edge treatments available for our patients at MSH, including participation in research studies.”

“Mr. Siu was incredibly ill from COVID-19,” says Birgit Belter, registered nurse, ICU. “Intensivists, respiratory therapists, infectious disease specialists, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, registered dietitians, physiotherapists, occupational health staff, and environmental services workers banded together to care for him. We collaborated with various specialties within MSH and other hospitals, to maximize the rehabilitation of COVID-19 patients. We worked to provide optimal care for Mr. Siu and other patients and to support each other during this time.”

Ryan Siu, Alex’s eldest son, recently earned his Ph.D. in molecular and cellular neuroscience from York University. He credits the MSH staff and doctors for their attentive level of care.

“During my telephone conversations with Ryan and his family, I always ensured they never felt rushed and could ask as many questions as they wanted. This way I was providing them with as much peace of mind as I could,” says Belter. “I can’t even imagine how many sleepless nights they endured.”

“Access to things like the air bed used for my dad helps the hospital provide better patient care,” says Ryan. “My dad was able to recover a lot quicker due to his being bedridden for so long. He was in severe pain when he woke up, so that was very helpful.”

Obviously, expertise is key, but having the proper technology and equipment at hand is equally vital.

“There’s a lot of equipment the community thinks is part of government funding, but it’s not. It comes from our donors,” says Dr. Sales.

“Donations made through the MSH Foundation fund the purchase of beds and other essential equipment. And that’s very important for the hospital to function and be able to do some extraordinary things.”

MSH launched a COVID-19 Relief Fund and has raised $2.5 million of its $3 million goal to date.

“Without our donors we would not have many of our essential services and equipment. Donor generosity is reflected in how well we are prepared for this pandemic,” says Dr. Sales.

The Siu family lives just five minutes from the hospital. They were finally able to see their father again after he woke, about a month after admission.

“They wheeled me over to the window so we could see each other while we spoke on the phone,” Siu says. “I’ll always be grateful for that. And then, in July, I had my first real visit with my wife. She had more grey in her hair but she’d never looked more beautiful. I was speechless, overwhelmed with emotion. It meant everything just to hold her hand.”

When Siu awoke, he was in crippling pain. He had developed two infections while he was intubated — in his spine and heart. He was unable to stand. Thus began a course of antibiotics, along with a battery of tests, MRIs and months of physiotherapy as part of his recovery. Through his intense ordeal, he lost 60 pounds. Today, he is back at work part-time.

“We persevered, the staff and Mr. Siu,” says Belter. “I am a strong believer in the strength of patients and their will to survive. I am also a strong believer in the staff who work tirelessly to provide the very best care. We battled COVID-19 together, Mr. Siu and the staff at MSH and this time we won the fight.”

“I’m lucky to be here to spend the holiday season with my family,” Siu says.

“In these days when we have these rising cases, it’s important to understand what can happen to younger people. It’s easy to let your guard down,” says Dr. Sales.

She notes that despite Siu’s relatively young age and good health, he was still hit particularly hard by the disease.

“This was quite a journey,” she says. “But through his courage and tenacity, he was able to get through this really difficult period of his life. He had that willpower and family support — I’m very happy to see that he’s done so well.”

Story from Saturday, November 27, 2020 Toronto Star.