A Pandemic Tale in Two Parts

A Pandemic Tale in Two Parts

  • Rosie

Part 1

Like the majority of the population, the coronavirus pandemic completely turned my life around. Whilst reading the news about Wuhan, I thought lockdown would never happen to us here in the UK. However, it quickly turned into a stark reality for all of us. At the start, I was quite ignorant and oblivious to the impact of coronavirus; I didn’t think it would affect me. I was at university having the best time of my life. I had moved to Leeds and had so many opportunities on my doorstep, but then coronavirus truly stripped that all from me.

A week before lockdown began, I celebrated a family member's 50th at a pub in London, which many people attended. Whilst I was aware that coronavirus was in the UK, I didn’t think that it could spread that quickly. In all honesty, I ignored all the warnings and attended this party from where I can only assume that I contracted the virus. A few days later, I myself started experiencing all the symptoms. Though I put the majority of it down to severe hay fever, my symptoms were not relieved by antihistamines, nasal spray nor eye drops. I moved down to my family home and shared a room with my mother. After about 2 days of being bedridden and feeling increasingly breathless, I soon felt a little better and could do basic tasks again. I felt like I had beaten coronavirus and being a young and healthy individual. I didn’t think it would ever affect me again. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Several days later, I was asleep while my mum had gone to use the bathroom and that’s when I suddenly heard a scream for help. My mum, simply put, couldn’t breathe. She was lying on the bathroom floor, shaking, unable to sit up or open her eyes and calling for help. At the time of this incident, the high demand on the NHS and the fact that you should only call an ambulance in extreme emergencies were constantly stated on the news. Therefore we called 111, but after waiting a few minutes and not getting through, as well as deterioration in my mum’s health led us to call 999. Whilst I have medical knowledge and work in the NHS, I definitely felt unequipped to help my mum, who was critically ill lying in front of me. I encouraged her to sit up to help her breathe and repeated the process of CPR over and over in my head. My siblings were outside to wave down the ambulance. I tried to keep my mum talking, as I knew from working in healthcare that if she was talking then she could breathe. However, she could only concentrate on single words and every word spoken was increasingly draining for her. On that night, we honestly thought that my mum was going to die.

The words she got out were passwords to her bank accounts in case I had to take over the funding, about her will and emergency contacts of who would look after us - her kids, if she was no longer with us. In those moments I tried to stay as calm as I could, reflecting on the things I had learnt through work but I don’t think anything can prepare you for when you think you are hearing your mum's last words.

The ambulance, although a priority one, didn’t come for 2 hours. In that time, my mum was doing as many breathing exercises as she could. My brother and sister were eagerly awaiting this ambulance, whilst I was trying to get her to drink water or anything to keep fluids in, as she was sweating out. My mum luckily didn’t stop breathing that night and is still with us, but it has been an incredibly slow process in terms of her recovery. For about five days, she didn’t eat and said she would never eat again as she physically felt so sick. She became confused and couldn’t remember things due to her high fever (39°C +). She couldn’t sit up or bear any light, not even a fully dim room with curtains closed. I had to barricade up the windows with towels and blankets to make sure the room was pitch black. All she was doing for over a week was concentrating on taking the next breath.

Meanwhile, I organised everything for the family and her work, from phoning her boss and answering her work calls to giving updates to our family in Denmark, even the horrifically hard ones like calling an ambulance again when things got worse. It was difficult finding a balance between telling family members about how critically ill she was and not wanting to worry anyone because the borders were being closed. Having FaceTime doctor’s appointments when I was so worried about her and continually being told not much could be done to help as many didn’t know enough about coronavirus at that time was hard. I set alarms in the middle of the night for every 2 hours to check that my mum was still breathing, to check her temperature and encourage her to drink water. However, every time I entered her room I expected her to no longer be with us. I spent most waking moments reading medical journals to try and see if there was anything that I could do, any medication that she could take, any positions that could aid her breathing. It was honestly the hardest and scariest month of my life.

My mum slowly became better but she suffered with post coronavirus infections as her immune system and body were so weak. It has now almost been 4 months and she’s only this week managed to do her first exercise of lockdown and I really hope we are through to the other side. I am so glad and grateful for every single NHS member of staff and every friend or family member who brought us food, medication, sent supportive messages during the worst of it, especially those who helped my mum. Even writing this is making me emotional, thinking about how horrific the last few months have been for my family and I, and how lucky I am that my mum survived.

Pre- COVID, my mum was a healthy 60 year old, who worked full time and had no previous health conditions. We didn’t think this virus would affect us but it certainly did and on other levels too.

Coronavirus didn’t just impact me through my own experience or my mother’s, it drastically deteriorated my mental health. Going from living at University to becoming a full time carer for a critically ill mum in a matter of days was incredibly hard to experience and process. I didn’t sleep most nights and struggled to eat or overate my emotions. I absorbed myself in playing video games just to try and distract myself from the happenings of reality. I suffered from night terrors, where I woke up screaming to the point that my siblings ran into my room thinking someone was attacking me. I developed hallucinations, both auditory and visual, and experienced extreme panic attacks that I vomit even now that my mum is well. I was so traumatised by this that I became deeply mentally unwell that I was unable to look after myself and went to hospital before being offered treatment in a psychiatric hospital. I have a new diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and still suffer with the impact of coronavirus almost 6 months on and think it will be an incredibly long time before I completely heal.

I am currently under intense mental health services and the crisis team, trying to focus on my recovery, doing hospital at home, on very high dose medications that keep me safe and aid my mental health. I still haven’t properly allowed myself to cry, writing this is the first time I have truly in full acknowledged just how much coronavirus has impacted me. Most of my days are now spent focusing on the little things. Being proud if I don’t have a panic attack, a flashback, going without thinking that any of my loved ones could have passed away and certainly if I managed to just keep myself safe the previous week. I never expected 2020 to turn out this way for me, but I also know a lot of people have had it worse and lost their loved ones due to this horrific virus. I can’t imagine what they are going through and am sending all my love to them. Sometimes I think about what if I hadn’t been so ignorant and researched more about coronavirus at the start? What if I hadn’t gone to that party, would my mum have stayed healthy? Would I not have gotten so acutely mentally unwell? I guess I will never know whether life would have turned out any differently if I had done things differently. I think this will be one of the main things I will focus on throughout my ongoing recovery.

One thing this pandemic has taught me is to keep your loved ones close to you and never take your own and others’ health for granted.

Part 2

A lot of people ask me why I want to be a medic and I often struggle to answer that. It’s the question I dreaded whilst preparing for medical school interviews as how do I explain what I have been through in a five minute MMI interview. But the truth is all throughout my teenage years I spent months in hospital. I have been told I had three days to live and had so many daily seizures that couldn’t be controlled and left me unable to attend education or be around my friends.

However I am still here and still standing. The doctors helped turn my life around and for that I am beyond grateful. Spending consecutive months in hospital watching the doctors on the night shift, the ones in different specialties and the trauma teams made me feel empowered. Empowered that I want to give back, to one day face the hardships like the doctors did for me: telling a 15 year old girl she has three days to live if something didn’t change. The realities of the job hasn’t put me off. Whilst I am not a doctor yet I have worked as a team on the “frontline”, working through the coronavirus pandemic as a healthcare assistant.

Many people have questioned my job and why I would want to put myself through the risks associated with coronavirus and working in healthcare and sometimes I question it myself. The days where I didn't have adequate PPE or the days I worked directly with coronavirus patients and went home to my family at the end of my shift knowing I could transfer it have made me question why I was doing this. Is my £9 an hour job worth the sacrifices I am making? Yet when I started working I didn’t have time to think about the risks. The process of getting the job was so quick that I didn’t have time to think that by going into work I was now risking both mine and my family ́s lives everyday, potentially bringing coronavirus into our home and it almost felt selfish of me. Selfish for me to put other people's families above my own. I have completely made peace about working and risking my own life but my mum’s, my brother’s and my younger sister's lives I really struggled with and questioned if this was worth it?

Before starting my job I toyed heavily with working throughout the pandemic. I saw the calls of desperation to help in supermarkets on the news and thought maybe I should help out. During the time I pondered over this, my mum got critically ill with coronavirus and got extremely close to losing her life.

From seeing her so poorly and seeing ambulance crews willingly come into contact directly with coronavirus to help my family made me want to do the same. On my first day I worked in a care home with a Covid positive patient. I was overwhelmed. Part of the corridor was sectioned off as a “hot” zone (Covid positive) and the other “warm” (suspected coronavirus). There were no Covid negative zones. I saw on the news how care homes were under immense pressure due to the pandemic and then witnessing the lack of PPE in even Covid positive areas just made me acknowledge how dangerous the situation truly was. I was given a facemask, gloves and a plastic apron, which was only to be used in patients ́ rooms as we didn’t have enough to be used in the corridors. After having worked in hospitals later on in my experience, I now know how negligent the lack of PPE was. At the time, the news gave the impression that I was lucky to have a face mask. However, now I know just how concerning it is that I was walking down a hot corridor in just a mask and gloves.

I was naive at the beginning, only watching a very small amount of news about the coronavirus crisis. But it happened that while I was at work specialling a patient for 5 hours (where an individual has to be observed within your eyesight), I watched the news on repeat. The stories about the disastrous effect of the pandemic truly made me look around and realise that what the news was talking about was happening around me and my colleagues. Whilst some of it was overly exaggerated, a lot of the stories were very apparent in my day to day life. I have held iPads up to palliative care patients who honestly never saw their families again in person. I told patients suffering with dementia that they weren’t allowed to complete their routine of going to the shops every morning which made them feel safe. I sat next to those who, due to lockdown, had felt so isolated with their mental health, they felt that their only option was to take their own lives. I also witnessed many people's last moments with only a single member of their families around and cannot tell you how many people I have seen being carried out in body bags.

Everyday is still scary, just this morning I heard on the news that the areas I work in are now in local lockdown. This means there's a severe spike in cases and once again I am preparing to work on the frontline and tackle this head on. Like I said earlier a lot of people ask me how I cope, why I do my job and how is it worth the sacrifices that I am making? In truth, some days I am not coping, some days I come home from work and want to hide away and lie under my duvet and sob. However, other days are worth it. The days where patients told me I have made their day.

The days where I hold the hands of patients going through somethings incredibly scary and providing them comfort. The days I snort out laughter with patients who tell jokes in order to cope with what they are going through. I have seen socially distanced dance classes in forensic psych units. I have seen mini bowling in dementia homes. Scrabble games in spinal injury units. I have seen people come together from all backgrounds to offer help to those in need. Almost hourly at work I think back to my own battles. How I felt sitting in a hospital bed critically ill at age 15. How that doctor took the time to sit with me. How much strength it took to tell a child that she might die.

That is why I do my job. Because one day I will be in that position. I don’t know whether that will be on my next shift or in ten years time but one day that moment will come. The day I am giving the most important news to someone that will completely turn their lives upside down.

Therefore despite the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges associated with it, I will always feel empowered to work in the NHS. Yes, there might be days I honestly can’t talk about the horrific things I have seen. But the prospect of saving lives makes it all worth it. And that is why I signed up to and, most likely always, will work in the NHS.