Stephen Potts in conversation with
This is written in the person of Siobhan*, a senior nurse, formerly working in a busy Intensive Care Unit, and in recent years working in a specialist role as a Transplant Co-ordinator, where I am one of her colleagues. When coronavirus struck, the transplant service was suspended and many of those working within it redeployed. Having kept up her ITU skills through agency shifts, she promptly volunteered to return there.
This is based on her account of her first shift in that role.
*not her real name
Note 1: March-May
Like a soldier in the quiet hours before battle, I have rewritten my will, kissed my kids goodbye, and wept alone on a woodland walk, fearful of what I’ll find tonight in intensive care, where I’m redeployed as a volunteer reservist. The men in my military family said they did not feel brave on entering a conflict zone, and right now, neither do I – unless bravery is defined as feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
If A&E is the front line, staffed by the Poor Bloody Infantry, intensive care is reserved for Special Forces: elite, highly trained, and equipped with all that fancy kit. What’s new is what we have to wear: for we are now knights of nursing, sheathed in plastic, grappling our invisible enemy in close quarter combat, Sweltering in sweaty gowns, and triple-glove clumsy for delicate tasks, we are anonymised by painful masks, and inexpressive behind our visors, showing little of who we are and nothing of how we feel.
But always the nagging doubt: is it protection enough? For were not Flodden and Bosworth Fields littered with dead knights, slaughtered in their thousands, despite their vaunted armour?
Note 2: May-July
Ten weeks on, the fighting has faded to sporadic mopping-up and I am back on the home front, facing the new abnormal.
I feared I’d be parachuting into a chaotic battlefield, but found at first a phoney war, where the missile had launched but was yet to land. When it did, our smooth controlled teamwork prevailed.
The mask marks on my face have faded, but the memories have not. So many people, so very sick from the same cause, arrived one after the other. Many were later to leave in body bags, which the mortuary porters, forbidden to enter, expected me to load onto their trolley:
“Which way round?”
“Doesnae matter any more, hen.”
The transplant team I returned to was transformed, with surgery suspended and remote consultations the norm. Transplant recipients were shielding, some anxious, some not (“I do this all the time”). Those who had who had hung on for years on waiting lists, now saw their transplant pushed further into an uncertain future.
What I miss most is human contact. In ITU I had been up close and personal with the sick and dying, separated by inches and my PPE armour — but they were mostly unconscious. Now I could look a transplant patient in the eye, and hear the catch in her voice, but only via a computer screen, over distances of many miles.
Note 3: July-August
It’s clear that the recovery — of people, of the NHS, of society — will be a long hard grind: but recovery to what? For I am now nursing by phone, by video, by email — and meetings in person are so rare they are precious, where once they were routine.
We are all chastened and changed. Arrogance told us we were in control, but I felt safer in intensive care, under all that PPE, than I do now in the supermarket, where some behave as if there is no risk at all.
While I have stories to share in misty-eyed retellings to future grandchildren (“When I was in Covid ITU…”) what’s hardest to bear had nothing do with the virus. A former close colleague returned, like me, to the front line, where we served long weeks together — only to die soon after demob, in a cruel and needless accident on the way to work. I still see him in hospital corridors — another tall man in a mask — but he didn’t even make our first reunion. It’s like surviving the Blitz only to be killed by a trolley car in the blackout. Where is the justice? Where the sense?
But the work goes on, through a constant swirl of uncertainty. We rebuild on shifting sands, amid an uneasy, much altered, peace, while we await the next wave. For It seems there is no post this war. Only during… or between. What’s sustained me so far, and must sustain us all in the struggles yet to come, is friends and family, colleagues …and comrades.