Posted in Covid Conversations, Longer reads

COVID CONVERSATIONS…with a mental health nurse

COVID-19 has changed all of our lives. In this short series, I will be sharing people’s stories and experiences of the pandemic. This, is Covid Conversations.

In the past year, health care workers have found themselves facing situations which they probably never imagined. We have all seen the footage of hospital emergency rooms inundated with COVID-19 patients. We have seen the ambulances lined up outside hospital doors, soldiers preparing for battle. But it is not just those working directly with COVID-19 patients who have been affected by the pandemic.

I spoke to an individual whose hospital ward suffered an outbreak of Covid-19 cases. For privacy reasons, her identity will not be revealed. Let us call her Tara. Tara is a mental health nurse, on a ward dedicated to caring for adults with dementia. She is one of many who have worked throughout the pandemic to protect and care for some of the most vulnerable in our society, putting herself at risk, and tragically catching COVID-19 in the process.

I asked Tara her earliest memory of COVID-19 being spoken about at work. “We started wearing a mask before anyone was really calling it a pandemic,” recalls Tara. “Where we work predominantly with elderly people, we knew how vulnerable they were, and so started taking precautions very early on.”

Tara and co-workers were already struggling to deal with the practicalities of the pandemic, before the COVID outbreak on their ward. “Staffing became a nightmare,” said Tara. “We rely a lot on agency staff but when the first wave of COVID hit no one was picking up shifts as everyone was panicking and afraid. Our own staff were also worrying about whether they had symptoms, so lots of people were taking days off, even if they just had a cold or a headache. We had to take every possible symptom seriously.”

“We look after patients who can be extremely aggressive and regularly scratch, bite, and spit on us”

Despite their best efforts, COVID-19 swept through the ward, spreading rapidly from patient to patient. “It was terrifying,” recalled Tara. “On the news they would always point out it is the older population with other health conditions that were dying from COVID, and all of our patients are in that category. We were so lucky that no one got significantly ill, but it didn’t stop it being an incredibly stressful time.”

It is no surprise when working with so many positive COVID patients, that Tara herself was one of many who became unwell with COVID-19. “We look after patients who can be extremely aggressive and regularly scratch, bite, and spit on us. It is surprising really that more of us didn’t catch the virus.”

“My main worry was that people would think I wasn’t doing my job correctly,” said Tara. “I was embarrassed and thought my colleagues would be disappointed or think I wasn’t wearing the correct PPE.”

“I would always leave shifts with red marks all over my face.”

Concerns were raised on Tara’s ward as to the effectiveness of the PPE they were provided with. In a job which involves high levels of personal care with vulnerable people, you would assume that the protective clothing and masks given to them would be of the highest quality. Unfortunately, this was not the case. “I remember watching the news and seeing doctors in full length gowns and big face masks, while I was using a mask you could have bought in any supermarket and a small plastic apron. It made you feel quite vulnerable.” The nurses and staff had to deal with the PPE they were given. “I tied the mask so tight that I would always leave shifts with red marks all over my face. We really did the best we could”.

You start to wonder how people in health care have continued to work, every day, despite all the challenges and devastations of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are emotionally drained,” said Tara. “Dealing with the pandemic is really hard, but we pulled together as a team. It was actually nice to go to work during the national lockdowns so that I could see my colleagues.”

“We knew we were doing an important job, and that helps keep you going”

“It is also incredibly rewarding,” said Tara. “I knew I was caring for those who really needed it, in a time when they couldn’t see any of their family or loved ones. We knew we were doing an important job, and that helps keep you going.”

We will all know someone in our lives who has had experiences similar to Tara. Someone who has worked tirelessly, selflessly, to continue to provide care and support for people who need it the most.  They are heroes, every single one, and all deserve a medal  (and more importantly, a pay rise). Every day they are putting other people’s health before their own, and that is nothing short of remarkable.

Posted in Covid Conversations, Longer reads

COVID CONVERSATIONS…with a student paramedic.

COVID-19 has changed all of our lives. In this short series, I will be sharing people’s stories and experiences of the pandemic. This, is Covid Conversations.

A year has passed since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first Covid-19 lockdown. On March 23rd ,while reflecting on the 365 days which have passed and the hundreds of thousands of lives tragically lost, people were encouraged to light a torch or candle to commemorate those no longer with us.

However, we must also consider those who are still here, but whose lives will be changed forever. Health care and front-line workers have experienced the chaos, confusion, and catastrophic casualties of the past year, and done so with extraordinary dedication and selflessness. One of these such groups are paramedics. They worked tirelessly while the infection rate was at its highest in order to protect those who were most vulnerable. It became a team effort, a real ‘hands-on-deck’ operation, and many student paramedics, whose final year exams were cancelled, were called back to London to assist on ambulances.

Jessica Male, 22, from Southampton, was one of these students. After being advised to move back home when lockdown was first announced, Jessica was one of hundreds called upon to return to the capital and provide essential support.

“It is the busiest the ambulance service has ever been and so they called upon third year paramedic students to help,” said Jess. “We were one day of training to show us what it would be like, and then we were sent out.”

“I worked with a range of people, some were paramedics and we also had some firefighters helping us. It was everyone rallying together to try and help as many people as possible.”

“We were leaving people who we knew were going to die. It was quite terrifying”

“It was bizarre,” said Jess, while reminiscing on the past year. “I remember during the training session they were telling us how many patients were having to be left at home due to the hospitals being so busy. People who normally would have been blue-lighted in the ambulance were being left in their homes. We were leaving people who we knew were going to unfortunately die. It was quite terrifying.”

Student paramedics were amongst many in medical professions asked to help manage the uncontrollable infection rates of COVID-19. Retired NHS staff, student nurses, and junior doctors were also deployed to support hospitals with overflowing COVID patients.

While reflecting on the year which has passed, Jess also recognises the long-term implications of the pandemic on our future.

“Health anxiety is now a massive thing. Mental health services are going to be inundated with calls and trying to catch up with months’ worth of cancelled appointments.”

“People are also more reluctant now than ever to go into a hospital, for the fear of getting COVID-19. Sometimes I have to say to them, you are more at risk staying home and not getting help, than going into hospital and getting the virus. It is a tricky balance, and a really hard decision for some people to make.”

“It was so hard reading about people thinking the whole pandemic was a hoax when we have colleagues die from the virus”

The twenty-two-year-old believes that social media sites and online news had a damaging effect on people’s perception of the virus. “So many people get their facts from social media and inaccurate news articles,” she said. “Some people believe everything they read online, and it is really dangerous. It was so hard reading about people thinking the whole pandemic was a hoax when we have had colleagues die from the virus.”

It takes a certain type of person to be a paramedic. To be able to remain calm and logical in the most destressing of situations, and the COVID-19 pandemic was an extreme example. “For some people who call us, it is the worst day of their lives,” said Jess. “But for us it has to just be another day so that we can do the best job possible. You have to go to each new job knowing they are going to get the best version of you.” 

Now a fully qualified paramedic, Jess is one of hundreds of students who have been put through the most challenging work simulation to date. One that no one saw coming, and that we hope we never have to experience again.