Returning to the NHS frontline has been physically and mentally exhausting
I am proud to have worked alongside the true heroes of this crisis, but the relentless strain of nursing in the pandemic has taken its toll.
As an NHS nurse for more than 25 years working in several settings from acute medicine through to A&E and cancer care, I thought I’d seen it all: dealing with life and death, and supporting patients and loved ones through some of the most difficult times in their lives.
Then came Covid.
When the crisis began to hit last March, I had to ask the cabinet secretary and PM if I could return to practice because I’d just been made a whip and, under the ministerial code, permission was needed.
Having kept my nursing registration and continued to work as a nurse since being elected, it was relatively easy to return to practice at my old hospital. I naively thought it would just be busier than usual.
The first wave in March was a shock to the system as, on my very first shift, I was put on the Covid ward. At that time we knew so little about the condition, only what we’d seen on TV from places like Italy and China.
The staff were frightened because, initially, we didn’t know how to put on the PPE properly and which patients we needed it for. We had no idea if, by looking after patients, we would be bringing the virus home to our families. We couldn’t reassure patients they’d pull through as we knew that those who went to ICU rarely returned to the wards. While the masks hid our faces, our eyes gave away our fears.
Psychologically, dealing with so much death is tough
The first wave came and went, and during the summer months when I returned for night shifts, life almost felt normal. I was back giving chemotherapy and looking after post-op patients, and it felt good to be giving non-Covid care.
By the end of October, we could see the numbers rising again on the wards. The green zones, which are Covid-free, were reducing and blue and red zones were returning. This time the patients were much younger and sicker, and with routine treatments continuing for other conditions, there was no spare capacity of staff or beds.
With no visitors allowed, patients go through their Covid experience alone, with just gowned and masked staff to look after them. It is a frightening experience not being able to breathe, and many patients just reach out their hand for you to hold as they are unable to speak and lack the strength to even nod or shake their head.
The second wave has been harder for staff than the first. Exhaustion from working night and day in masks, gowns and gloves physically takes its toll. On top of this, most staff I work with have had Covid by now and some are still physically trying to recover from the effects on their own bodies.
Psychologically, dealing with so much death is tough. Although I worked in cancer care for many years and saw patients die, the scale of having two or three people die on one shift is not something I’m used to; seeing that day in, day out is crushing on the spirit. The most tragic case I witnessed was a 26-year-old man who died. The screams of his family will live with me forever.
The vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel. While it is still busy and we still have Covid bays, we know respite is coming. When normality returns, I imagine all our efforts on the Covid wards will be forgotten but, for those of us who lived through it, the images, fear and sadness will stay with us.
I am so proud to have worked alongside the true heroes of this crisis who put themselves in danger every single shift trying to save every life, or at least be there to hold the hands of those they couldn’t.
Maria Caulfield is the Conservative MP for Lewes.