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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.