“We’re almost risking our lives to help others”: an NHS nurse shares her story

Written by Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter

What is it really like to be working on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus? Here, NHS nurse Jessica tells Stylist about the realities of working as a theatre nurse during these uncertain times, ahead of her appearance on NHS Heroes: Fighting To Save Our Lives on Channel 4 tonight.

I’ve wanted to be a nurse for as long as I can remember. My gran became unwell when I was a teenager and I visited her a lot in hospital and between different care homes. The nurses showed her so much care and compassion, and I saw first-hand how much of a difference it makes to have someone there to hold your loved one’s hand and spend a bit of time with them.

My gran unfortunately passed away when I was 18. It was then that I became even more determined to pursue a career in nursing. I knew I’d be able to care for someone when they needed it the most and was motivated by the care I’d watched her receive.

I qualified just under two years ago and got a position as a theatre scrub nurse, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed so much about my job. My theatre department has been transformed into an ICU department so I’m essentially working as an ICU nurse now, which is quite overwhelming. I’ve got different shifts, longer hours, new team members and new protocols. We’re all learning on our feet, which is exhausting.

The atmosphere in the department is really different, too. It’s the most bizarre situation – it’s like a ghost town because we don’t have relatives and friends visiting patients as we usually would. But at the same time, the department is so busy and noisy in a slightly different way, as we have lots of doctors, members of staff and patients in ICU. But without the usual visitors, the buzz isn’t quite the same.

The fact that our patients aren’t allowed visitors due to lockdown and social distancing measures has been one of the most difficult parts of working in the ICU during the pandemic. It’s put extra strain on me emotionally, as we can usually rely on relatives coming in and giving our patients a bit of comfort, but they haven’t been able to have that. 

It’s only recently that the protocol around visiting has changed. If a patient is at the end of their life they are now allowed to have family members come and visit them, whereas at the beginning of the crisis, when a patient was at the end of their life, it was only us who could be there for them.

I’ve seen many, many patients pass away, during my time as both a student and staff nurse. You experience a mixture of emotions – it’s a heavy privilegeto be with someone when they take their last breath, but it’s so sad for the patient and their loved ones. Being with a patient when they’ve been unable to have a relative by their side has been the worst moment for me so far.

This has put a strain on me outside of work, too. I come home and I can’t help but think about it. It’s funny talking about my mental health from a medical point of view because I think people assume that medical professionals don’t suffer from mental health issues, but we do.

I’ve had anxiety from a young age and this was last triggered badly while planning my wedding and having lots of changes happen in a short amount of time. The pandemic has brought on a new set of fast pace changes none of us were ready for and I’ve felt my anxiety creep back in. I’m trying to deal with the stress and disappointment of having to cancel my wedding, which we were really looking forward to, along with working and running a house.

We were also meant to be going to Tenerife on our honeymoon, but I spent that time working night shifts at the hospital instead. We couldn’t afford to go further afield as we’d had some issues with our house – the boiler had broken and the roof started leaking – and we’d also spent two years saving up for the wedding. When my wedding and honeymoon got cancelled, I decided to cancel my annual leave too, because I knew work would need me. My patients are my main priority at work but it was really difficult to put everything to the back of my mind and forget about it.

I’m trying to talk about my emotions more with my fiancé who has been great. Luckily I also work with a fantastic team who are aware of the struggles I’ve had and I know they support me, and that we’re all in this together.

There are other positives, too. We’ve had patients successfully step down from ICU to a ward and then discharged from hospital, and from what I’ve heard they are doing well. It’s not as many as we’d like but it’s rewarding to be part of such an incredible team, and we’re all working together and doing the best we possibly can. We’re almost risking our own lives to be there to help other people, so it’s an achievement in itself to last a whole shift without burning and crashing.

My message to anyone worrying about coronavirus would be to stay safe and to try to stay as positive as possible. It’s difficult and can be very overwhelming at times, so speak to someone. We’re all guilty of burying our heads in the sand and getting on with it, but I think people should take some time out to acknowledge what they’re doing. 

We really are all in this together, and we’re all doing a great job, so we should be proud of what we’re achieving.

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here’s three articles that might help.

  • 4 tips for dealing with anxiety, from someone who lives with it
  • Everything you need to know about seeking mental health support during the coronavirus pandemic
  • Free online therapy and wellbeing resources you can access during the coronavirus outbreak

For more information on anxiety, including what it is and how to cope, you can check out NHS Every Mind Matters or visit the Mind website.

NHS Heroes: Fighting To Save Our Lives is on tonight at 9pm on Channel 4

Images: courtesy of Jessica and Channel 4

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