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Dr. Kanna Vela has been treating COVID-19 patients in emergency departments in Ajax and Scarborough, Ontario for nearly 10 months. She lived apart from her family at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Receiving her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in late December has given Dr. Vela some hope for the months ahead as hospitals struggle to care for the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Over the holidays, physician Kanna Vela made sure to keep one eye on her phone. She knew if a vaccine slot became open, there wouldn’t be much notice.

The Scarborough Health Network (SHN), where Dr. Vela works, is one of the sites administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

For now, the limited doses have been reserved for long-term care and retirement-home staff, but because the vaccine has a short shelf life after it has been thawed, high-risk health care workers at SHN are being offered doses whenever a person misses an appointment. The hospital has been working backwards – oldest to youngest – through staff who work directly with COVID-19-positive patients.

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Dr. Vela got the text message she had been waiting for just after lunch on Dec. 28, while she was playing with her daughters, aged 3 and 5, in the basement toy room.

“U available for vaccine tomorrow?” the chief of the emergency department wrote.

“Yes!!!” she replied.

Dr. Kanna Vela removes her gown and gloves at the end of her shift in the emergency department at Ajax Pickering Hospital in Ajax, Ont., April 2, 2020.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail first connected with Dr. Vela in the early days of the pandemic. The 37-year-old emergency-room doctor had made the agonizing decision to move out of her home to keep her family safe.

“Back in the first wave, we just had no idea about this virus. We didn’t know how it spread. We didn’t know if the PPE we were using would be enough to protect people on the frontline. We didn’t know how infectious it was,” Dr. Vela recalled.

“I didn’t know whether, at the end of a shift, I would be carrying it home and transmitting it to my family members. So for that reason, I decided to remove myself from the situation.”

Dr. Vela moved into her parents’ home and her parents moved into the home she shares with her husband and two girls. For three weeks, she didn’t hold her children. As more became known about the virus, Dr. Vela started visiting the children whenever she had a few days off in a row. She’d tuck her girls into bed and then drive back to her parents’ place. She didn’t move back into her home until May.

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“It was a very stressful time. There was so much guilt. Not being there for the kids and not spending time with my husband,” she said. Dr. Vela has been most afraid of infecting her elderly parents. Her family has continued to see them throughout the pandemic because she relies on them for child care.

Her nanny, who has children of her own, had to quit when schools closed. “But obviously it was not sustainable [to stay away the entire pandemic] with a toddler and a five-year-old … but after I came home, I almost felt more anxious and guilty [worrying] I’m carrying something.”

Emergency physician Dr. Kanna Vela plays with her two young daughters in their backyard on Dec. 30, 2020.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

For nine months, Dr. Vela has been seeing things that will stick with her forever. The patient in his 40s, with young children like her, who didn’t make it. “I cried a lot that day,” she recalled. The family friend who showed up in her emergency room gasping for breath. As his oxygen levels plummeted, and the medical staff prepared to put him on a ventilator, Dr. Vela frantically called his family so everyone would have a chance to say whatever it is that they needed to – just in case. The man survived, but he still requires oxygen at home.

More recently, there’s been the chaos of the second wave. The hospitals – she also works at Lakeridge Health’s Ajax-Pickering Hospital – where she works have been so inundated with COVID-19 cases that they’re having to transfer patients elsewhere.

“The other day, we moved a patient from Scarborough all the way to Peterborough by ambulance because there were no beds in Ajax. No beds in Oshawa. We had to keep moving east until there was a bed available,” she said. (That’s nearly a 1½-hour-long drive.)

And it’s not just the coronavirus cases that weigh on her. It’s everyone else who needs help, but can’t get the best care because of the pandemic. The cancer surgeries that get delayed. The patients dying of other causes, who can’t say goodbye to their loved ones because of COVID-19 visitor restrictions.

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These were the things going through her mind when she sat down to get her shot at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 29.

“It was a lot of emotions at the same time,” she said. “Just thinking back the last nine months and all the hardship and the challenges, the anxiety and the fear. So many things were going through my head. So many feelings. So many emotions.”

“I was just really, really grateful that I got to be one of the earlier people in our province to be vaccinated. I was really relieved and grateful.”

Emergency physician Dr. Kanna Vela receives the COVID-19 vaccine (developed by Pfizer-BioNTech) on Dec. 29 from her Scarborough Health Network colleague Dr. Elan Ambalavanar.

Courtesy of family

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