Gillian Colhoun in conversation with
Suzy is Gillian’s friend who lives over the hedge. She’s a Respiratory Consultant in Belfast’s Mater Hospital, and mum to five kids. She took part in a TV campaign that changed public attitudes to social distancing in Northern Ireland.
Note 1: March-May
Something was coming. I wasn’t sure what.
Reports from China were unnerving but when Italy happened, it was clear we were in for massive, seismic change.
On 13th March I travelled to England to convince my parents they shouldn’t go to Bologna.
“I’m not sure you should be staying in small hotels with all those other pensioners.”
“Why not? It’s already paid for, and it’s not like we’re elderly.” Both my parents are in their mid-eighties.
I came back to Belfast, not knowing what I’d face. There was no time to dwell, it was all preparations, ward reconfigurations and workmen.
The junior doctors were frightened. I could see it. But then you learn the protocols – how to don and de-don the PPE. Your focus returns to the sick and the worried.
Once you have the routine down, it becomes your normal. It’s not until you try and sleep, that your body insists this isn’t normal at all.
Note 2: May-July
Social distancing. Funny phrase, that. Lots of chat about whether it should be ‘spatial distancing’ since the need for connection burns brighter than ever.
Either way, the message wasn’t getting through. A few of us at the hospital chatted about how serious things could get if the guidelines weren’t taken seriously. We decided to speak directly to the public.
It all happened very quickly. Before we knew it, twenty of us were lined up in the foyer of the Royal Victoria Hospital ready to say our lines. We each chose our own words, but it amounted to a collective plea to stay at home. What did I say?
“I’m Suzy. I’m a Respiratory Consultant and I’ve been a doctor for 35 years. We’re facing our greatest challenge. And we’re frightened. Help us. Please stay at home.”
Given how quickly we pulled it together, no one expected the video to go viral. Or that we’d appear on the six o’clock news.
Our work was different by then, but we were one big team. Physicians, cleaners, caterers, nurses – everyone pulling in the same direction. We looked after the patients but we knew it was just as important to look after relatives. Having regular phone chats with family members brought all of us closer in ways we’d never been before.
I want to hold on to that.
Note 3: July-August
Positive cases are rising but not much has changed at the hospital, yet. There’s more of a transition happening at home. Older kids back at university, one still studying from home. Chivvying the youngest back to school but silently hoping they’ll all be okay.
So much worry around how this will affect our young people. This next year of school leavers, what will happen to them? Are we sleepwalking our way to a lost generation? What on earth will they think when they’ve had enough life experience to look back and process it all?
Perspectives are shifting. Yearnings for personal space bubble up to the surface; these feelings aren’t new but are more present, more pressing. Trying to make time for simple things that don’t ravage what little mental energy is left. Being selective about who we spend time with, that matters too. Perhaps we’re entering a new period of priority, making
choices based on meaning, not appearances; yes, that might be a positive.
We part ways after an hour’s walk together, both of us experienced a mental as well as a physical workout. We promise to do it again soon.