From the Daily Mirror: Frontline NHS staff have spoken of the emotional toll of caring for dying COVID-19 patients.
At the height of the Covid pandemic, University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton, Co Durham had around 180 seriously ill patients on six wards. Physios, domestics, and health care assistants ‘upskilled’ to help hard-pressed nurses look after patients who were unable to receive any family visits. In a series of moving interviews reflecting on their year on the frontline, they told of holding the hands of patients as they died so that they knew ‘they were not alone’. They read out letters from children and grandchildren to keep up the spirits of those in their care.
They fought back tears as relatives made the last calls to their loved ones – saying goodbye and telling them how much they loved them as they contemplated the end of their lives. And they told how some of the elderly patients simply could not face making that final call – because they did not want their loved ones to see them fighting for their lives. Often, the older patients did not have a mobile phone with a video – so nurses would let them use their personal phones. One hard-working matron bought chargers for her patients.
The hospital was at the forefront of the battle against Covid, researching potential new treatments on hundreds of patients. Staff spoke of the extraordinary bond shared in the pandemic – and how team work had helped them face their own fears. Consultant Katie Elmer told patients going on ventilation that it was ‘very, very important to say the words you need to share’ with loved ones.
“Because you may not get another opportunity,” she added. “At its worst you were losing multiple people at the same time. It was so hard for nurses as you don’t usually have that many dying.”
She added: “When you think of nursing staff and domestics and porters who have worked and given so much to the patients – you don’t even want to think what one percent means to them. Personally, I do think that is an insult after all they have done. They don’t have massive salaries but they have gone on working way beyond their shifts at times. I think that someone should recompense them to show our appreciation.”
Aimie Cronin, physiotherapist
Physio Amie Cronin, 35, of Stockton, said: “A lot of people were aware they were really poorly – but did not have any family around them. They knew they were alone. They told us how they felt and that was very hard, and distressing for them. Emotionally, it has been a rollercoaster. Especially with the death rates going up. Obviously the more intense it was on the ward, the more people you were losing.
“There were two waves and when it peaks, it takes its toll, as the death rates peak, the volume of patients rises and they are coming through the hospital. You don’t have time to let it affect you. But you are there to care for patients so you do get emotionally involved.
“We have been there for each other, but emotionally, as you lose people, that is the really tiring part. All we knew was that it was a full ward, and every time a patient left, there was another one ready to come on. It felt like most of the wards were Covid wards at some point.
“It was the sheer volume of deaths. You expect deaths in health care but you do not expect the numbers we had in Covid. There was a patient, the first gentleman on the mask to help him breathe. He did not want to talk to his family to say his final goodbye. That was so tough as we are so used emotionally to helping people get better, and for him, there was no hope.
“You want to keep them fighting for their own lives. Over a 12 month period, that really does take a toll emotionally. You want them to keep up the fight. There were virtual visits on an iPad. The patient wanted to say goodbye and end the call.
“They would say how much they loved their family, and say goodbye, and that was the hardest part of the whole experience. Some patients did not want their last memories of them to be like that. You can never prepare for that. No amount of training can prepare you for that.”
Katie Elmer, respiratory physician
Respiratory physician Katie Elmer, 48, mum-of-two, of Wynyard, Co Durham: “Very early on, our consultants went through every single piece of advice and guidance and summarised it for all staff. That meant we were very up to date. We were very confident about non invasive ventilation.
“For all nursing staff, we had plans to upskill people so they felt confident about working with Covid patients. People were so dedicated, it made us feel confident we were doing it right. You have to tell patients going onto ventilation that they may not be able to speak. It was harder with Covid patients who are so well otherwise.
“It is very important that their loved ones get the opportunity to say what they want to say to them and tell them that they love them. The number of hands we have held as people have gone. It is a privilege, an absolute honour when a family member rings back and says thank you. Usually when you see a patient going onto a very high requirement for oxygen, they do not survive. But we had Covid patients on 80-100 percent oxygen completely aware for weeks.
“Some would die, but some would get better. With Covid you keep on because it is impossible to say.”
Jodi Pearson, health care assistant
Health care assistant Jodi Pearson, 35, of Hartlepool: “The first month, I was crying every day at work, I was saying to people that I was ready to leave my job. One night I went home and had a good talk to myself and got on with it basically. I was terrified on the drive to work, but I just had to get on with it when I got here.
“It was new to everyone, every last person. It was scary because it kept changing from one day to the next and the job changed as you learned more about it.
“All of us were scared for our families. You know you are at risk and you think about going home to them. I don’t have kids but you are still thinking of others, elderly relatives, anybody vulnerable. We had one sign in the hospital, it was for a nurse who had brought herself away from her family and they put up a sign saying ‘we love and miss you mammy’ and that told me that that mother had taken herself away from her own family, and that really made me think. I cried at that as well.
“That’s why I would say to people – stick to the rules and follow the Government guidance. People made sacrifices for you. Think about them.”
Lizzy Meldrum, ward matron
Ward matron Lizzy Meldrum, 35, mum-of-two, of Hartlepool said: “It is very tiring for staff as well as emotionally exhausting. A lot of patients are fully dependent because they are so unwell. They may have to lay on their front or on their side because of their oxygen levels. They are completely dependent on you to look after them for their needs. We all work as a team but it is very physically demanding.
“We had an email service called linking loved ones, and we used to read them out to the patients. I remember I had three to read, and it was very emotional for the patient who was very unwell, I read communication from his two children and grandchild, it was very upsetting to try and maintain your own composure. You were trying to catch your tears. The team has been great in supporting each other and that is what has got us through, you lean on each other. It is hard not to feel overwhelmed at first.
“When the first patients came in, you could see the fear in their eyes. It was very hard to juggle time when there are so many patients who need you at the same time. The best part was when you had a patient who was very ill and you got to see them going home. The relatives come to collect them and say thank you and that is lovely. My message to people would be: Follow the Government advice. This is real, very real. I think that most nurses come into this profession for love, not for money, it is a passion.”
Selina Pearce, staff nurse
Staff nurse Selina Pearce, 28, a mum-of-one, from Hartlepool, said: “It was scary for us as well, we have all those emotions and you cannot show them. It is hard to tell families that they cannot come in. You try and support them during the course of a busy day, and the patients as well.
“Nursing is very challenging emotionally as you may see people at the worst time in their lives, with Covid you had to try and cope with that but it was hard to deal with emotionally. You go home and you don’t want to burden your family with what you have seen. In the first wave, I had my little boy who was aged one so it was really scary going home to him, that fear of spreading anything to him.
“You go home and wash all your clothes but you are constantly thinking of your own family and the dangers to them. It has taken a pandemic for nurses to be appreciated for what they do every day, it is very stressful looking after people who are so poorly and having to deal with that.”
Karen Piggford, domestic
Karen Piggford, 57, of Hartlepool, mum-of-two and with one grandson: “It was really scary at first. We were surrounded by people showing symptoms. We had all the gear on, when you went onto the ward. That was really scary too.
“The worst is just seeing people dying. It was the older ones at first and then they started getting younger as time went on. We treated them all the same, and it was just really sad. There were no relatives allowed up onto the ward and that was the hardest thing for them. So we just had to sit with them. I am a cleaner but you help those around you. It is a team on the ward, so you help out as much as you can.
“You want them to know that there is someone with them – that they are not on their own. They were unconscious. And it was really distressing for them. I used to go home and cry some days. I had to talk to the family – but the team on the ward were always there for each other, and a bottle of wine now and again!
“As soon as I got home, I got into the shower and washed my hair. The kids come running to you at the door but the first thing I did was to have a shower. As soon as you get in.
“You cannot see it, you don’t actually know where it is – that is the problem. It was hard to then go out and see people without masks and people say it is not real and sometimes you cannot talk to people about it. The first time was really really upsetting because you had not been through it. The second time at least you were ready and could cope with it. In the summer it was terrible, the PPE makes you sweat.
“I got Covid. And I was off work for three weeks. I felt like I came back too soon. In the gear I struggled with my breathing, it was like the flu, your body aches and you feel really really tired. I was out of breath when I was moving around the house. I could not do my housework, it takes a few months to get over it completely, I still get tired with it, and that is down to the virus. Getting the vaccination has made a big difference. We are looking forward to a big get together, we could do it in a field in the summer, like a wedding.”