When starting FY1 back in July 2019, it never would have occurred to me that I would be working as a doctor during a devastating global pandemic mere months later. Initially, watching the news and seeing the rising deaths in Europe, particularly Italy, caused me to be fearful and full of uncertainty as to whether the NHS would be able to cope with a sudden surge of COVID cases.
I find that uncertainty and fear are two of the biggest collective emotions which sum up many healthcare workers' experiences during this time. I’ve had lengthy discussions with my colleagues about the dread of catching the virus and bringing it home to our loved ones, prompting many to move out of their family homes in a bid to protect them. We’ve discussed the fear and anguish caused by feeling helpless whilst relatives fight coronavirus in a hospital alone as visitors are banned. We’ve faced both the fear of lack of knowledge and information fatigue with the barrage of numbers and daily bulletins and constant changes in PPE and clinical management guidelines. I’ve spoken to many with low morale and uncertainty regarding the fate of their training programme as we’ve been taken from our original rotations and switched onto emergency rotas with some working longer hours and in different environments than they are used to. As a junior doctor, I do feel well supported in clinical contexts but there is an over-arching expectation to quickly adapt, be flexible, and just get on with it. This is what we signed up for, isn’t it?
Although, it’s not. I find the wartime narrative of “frontline” NHS health workers that have needlessly died from coronavirus due to lack of PPE as “sacrificing themselves” very problematic. Not one healthcare worker has signed up to be sacrificed, and by viewing those that have died as heroes who have succumbed as part of the effort takes away the responsibility of the government to provide correct PPE. In March the UK government downgraded the PPE to be worn in areas with no aerosol-generating procedures to an apron, surgical mask, and gloves which deviated from WHO guidance which suggested full PPE (gown, respirator mask, and gloves) be worn in all COVID and potential COVID areas. Despite voicing concerns regarding PPE, 65% of doctors felt either partly or not protected at all from coronavirus in a recent BMA survey.
As a black doctor, this is especially worrying considering BAME healthcare workers are dying at disproportionate rates. It has been reported that 75% of the 50+ healthcare workers that have died from COVID-19 in the UK are from BME backgrounds. This is also more widely reflected in the fact that BAME individuals are more likely to become critically ill, and an official inquiry to investigate this has been launched recently.
This pulled into sharp focus my anxieties about catching the virus and heightened my awareness of being higher risk due to having moderate asthma controlled with high dose inhaled steroids. My anxieties were realised when I was faced with my own positive COVID swab after days of severe chest tightness, cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath on minimal exertion. Due to the severity of my symptoms I attended A&E and I was relieved to know that my oxygen saturations, blood results and chest x-ray were reassuring, and I could be discharged. I spent the next ten days in self-isolation recovering, but unfortunately as I live with other health care workers, this triggered a fourteen-day quarantine for them as per government guidelines. Although it’s illogical as I hadn’t fallen ill on purpose and the quarantine period is important to stop the spread of the virus, I felt a sense of guilt that my housemates were unable to go to work and had to self-isolate despite having no symptoms.
During my recovery period I was energised by the support from all of my family, friends, and colleagues which definitely boosted my spirits. I’ve found the increased communication, connection, and sense of community during this period to be one of the biggest highlights of such a dark time. The wonderful gifts and donations which come through the hospital doors daily from the public are all very heart-warming, especially the funky coloured and elaborately patterned handmade scrubs which have brightened up every hospital corridor.
We truly appreciate public support however a small minority of the very same people banging pots and shouting a big hurrah for the NHS at 8pm on Thursday night are the people flouting social distancing rules and spreading the virus on Friday morning. The biggest way the public can show their support is by staying at home!
I’ve found that healthcare workers are doing their best to support each other during this vulnerable time by checking in and ensuring that people are taking breaks and exercising self-care. At the hospital where I work, they have developed a “No-vid” well-being room which has an espresso machine, comfy chairs, colouring books, and is a safe place to talk, relax, and de-stress. I think in this time of fear and uncertainty and with no clear end in sight, the best we can do is strive to look after each other and lean on the support of our loved ones to keep us motivated on our quest to care for the sick – the job we did sign up for.
Article written by Dr Rachel Cutenar, junior doctor in Surrey