A Chilly Challenge: ICU Nurse Pledges to Take 333 Polar Plunges to Raise Funds for St. Joe’s 3 Wishes Project

A St. Joe’s nurse is pledging to take 333 plunges into the icy waters of Lake Ontario to raise funds for the Hospital’s 3 Wishes Project, a program that supports palliative care in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) by granting patients nearing the end of their lives a few final wishes.

Yulia Shevchenko, a Hamilton resident and longtime nurse in St. Joe’s ICU, has already completed more than 50 polar dips this year. Yulia is chronicling the chilly challenge on social media and inviting the community to donate to the 3 Wishes Project through stjoesfoundation.ca/PolarDip.

The 3 Wishes Project was created by a team of St. Joe’s clinicians to bring peace to patients in their final moments. The project aims to personalize end-of-life care for patients, loved ones, and their caregivers, while celebrating lives well-lived and supporting those left behind in grief.

“As a critical-care nurse, death is a part of life in the ICU,” Yulia says. “Each death leaves a scar on our hearts, but it helps to process the loss when a family can be there to plan for their loved one’s passing, hold their hand, and honour their last wishes – whether it’s visiting St. Joe’s spiritual garden to feel the sun on their face, or reuniting with family members one last time.”

The 3 Wishes project is not only dear to Yulia because of its impact on the lives of the patients, families, and care teams with whom she works, but also because of her experience as a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the project has been praised for bringing compassionate care to the ICU, end-of-life care changed profoundly over the course of the pandemic.

In the Hospital’s ongoing fight against COVID-19, restrictions on visitors to protect patients, staff, and the community against the spread of the virus, often called for Yulia and her colleagues to serve as a communications lifeline between patients and their loved ones. Hospital staff stepped in to comfort patients so they wouldn’t die alone, while family members said goodbye virtually, or from behind a glass door.

“The last two years have been heartbreaking for everyone on the unit,” Yulia adds. “Personally, I had a really hard time watching patients on ventilators dying alone, their families devastated because they couldn’t be there in their final days. It became unbearable and my mental health suffered.”

In March 2021, as she struggled with her mental wellness, Yulia was introduced to polar dips – an extreme pastime that is both emotionally and physically challenging. She took her first plunge into Lake Ontario’s minus-degree waters, and hasn’t stopped since. Overcoming her fears and spending more time in nature, Yulia says, has helped her cope with the heavy toll COVID-19 has had on her mental health.

“It was hard at the beginning, of course, but now ice swimming is something I look forward to,” she says. “Sometimes, I go by myself and, on weekends, we have a community of people who ice swim together – we drink tea, watch the sunrise, and take photos of nature.”

Yulia stresses ice swimming isn’t for everyone, and does not advise trying it without speaking to a healthcare professional first. For her colleagues who may also need help with their mental health, Yulia recommends seeking out the specialized mental health services St. Joe’s offers to health and community care workers. She also encourages finding a mood-boosting activity they can enjoy outside of work.

“It could be participating in a sport, doing art, or becoming involved in the community,” she says. “For me, ice swimming helped, and it still helps because it’s really tough working in the ICU. Pandemic restrictions are lifting but, behind closed doors in the ICU, we continue to care for patients with COVID-19.”