COVID Christmas in French ICU: Fear, fatigue and loving care

MARSEILLE, France (AP) — From the intensive care ward in France where he is spending the holidays, COVID-19 patient David Daniel Sebbagh said he has one overriding regret: that he didn’t get vaccinated.

“The vaccine, it’s not a danger,” the 52-year-old said as he lay in a Marseille hospital. “It’s choosing life.”

The ICU’s chief doctor, Dr. Julien Carvelli, is trying to keep his team motivated as they spend another Christmas tending to patients on breathing machines, periodically flipping them back to front, front to back.

The staff is tired, the omicron variant is bearing down, and the unit’s beds are filling fast. “We’re afraid we won’t have enough space,” Carvelli said.

Marseille’s La Timone Hospital, one of France’s biggest hospitals, has weathered wave after wave of COVID-19. On Christmas Eve, medical personnel decorated a fir tree in the corridor and seized a moment for a communal meal in their scrubs, trying to maintain a semblance of holiday spirit in between rounds.

The hospital allows families to visit gravely ill loved ones in the ICU, as long as they’re careful. Amelie Khayat has paid daily visits to her husband, Ludo, 41, who spent 24 days in a coma and on a breathing machine. The couple touched heads as she sat on his bed. Now strong enough to stand, he stood to give her a farewell hug.

In a nearby room, a 40-year-old patient lay unconscious near death, with her young son’s winter hat placed on her belly. In another, a relative had left a Christian icon propped on a patient’s tray.

Down the hall, Katy Zalinian waited anxiously to visit her cousin. She later entered his room wearing full protective gear and touched her hand lovingly to his leg.

While some 90% of French adults are vaccinated against the coronavirus and some 40% have received a booster shot, most of the COVID-19 patients in La Timone’s ICU are unvaccinated.

“I regret it, a lot, a lot, a lot,” patient Sebbagh said. “I let myself get caught up in things. I thought that the vaccine was not necessarily something good.”

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 I was in pain.”

Sebbagh’s wife, Esther, described her terror: “Our life was shattered this week... I believed I would lose him.”

He’s still testing positive for the virus and says that 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 to escape, to avoid something more serious.”

France now is seeing its highest daily infection rates of the pandemic as the omicron variant races around the country. Carvelli, the ICU chief in Marseille, worries hospitals could soon be “overwhelmed.”

“We’re already in a situation of tension, with very few available spaces,” he said. “We’re sick of this. We’re always focused on doing our jobs the best way possible...but the more this goes on, the more tired people get.”

Two things are making this Christmas especially challenging, Carvelli said. More and more staff members are testing positive in the current omicron surge and therefore unavailable to work. And some colleagues are leaving the profession altogether because of the strain.

“We still try to have little special moments during the workday, or night, to get together to celebrate,” he said. “It’s strange for the patients, too, who are deprived of Christmas.”


Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.


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