This was the NHS 2020: Four stories of grit, hope and kindness from the frontline

Ella Alexander
·15-min read
Photo credit: Justin Setterfield
Photo credit: Justin Setterfield

From Harper's BAZAAR

Ask any Brit what makes them proud of being British, and they will say the NHS. No year have we felt that more urgently or acutely than 2020, when our health service has borne the brunt of a global pandemic. It has done what it usually does but in even more strained circumstances - it has relieved countless people of pain and prolonged lives.

Regardless of how we vote, we are incredibly proud of the NHS. We agree that we should all be grateful for it, that it is instantly unifying. When we walk into one of its waiting rooms, it doesn’t matter what background you’re from, whether or not you voted Tory or Labour, we are all in that moment the same. In moments where we no longer have the answers (after all, none of us can with all the will in the world can summon wellness and health) we all submit ourselves to the NHS – to its staff's expertise, knowledge and care.

A lot of the emotive language we have used this year about nurses, doctors and healthcare workers doesn’t do them justice. We speak of them as heroes and angels powered by love. They are so much more than Batman in scrubs – medical practitioners are qualified, highly skilled and competence deserving of respect, fair wages and strong working conditions. They’re not from a higher power, they are not super-human species, they are ordinary people committed to doing the very best job they can in circumstances that were beyond challenging long before Covid-19 arrived. These people are pragmatic, focused and experienced – these are the people that can return you to your parents, husband, wives and children. They will, if it is at all possible, make sure a future still happens for you. They will bear the weight of your grief.

We have relied on the NHS in 2020 to not only help us recover from the virus, but also to ease our pain from all the many, many other illnesses still existence, whether cancer or depression. Anytime any day, you can walk into an NHS hospital and they will do their best to make you feel better. That is extraordinary. It is the benchmark of human achievement.

Photo credit: Leon Neal
Photo credit: Leon Neal

We will all end up in a waiting room at some point, as many of us have this year. Perhaps you have the money to go private, but not everyone you know will. Yes, you too will be stuck in a waiting room being over perky to compensate for the thing wrong with you that threatens your ability to stay alive. You will be reliant on our brilliant national health service to mend you. It sounds like magic, but it isn’t. Great swathes of people have become extremely qualified, extremely proficient to deal with this – and that is even more impressive than human angels.

Here, four NHS workers reflect on their experiences over the past 12 months, what they have seen, what they have carried and, ultimately, what gives them hope.

Charmaine

Senior clinical facilitator (mental health nurse), London

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

I am a registered mental health nurse by background and have previously worked in both mental health and physical health settings while on a rotational nursing programme within my trust. My current role is senior clinical facilitator, and the main focus of my role is to support the apprentice nursing associates. In March, we were advised to work from home as per government guidance. We had to find different ways of working to support the learners while also maintaining their and our safety. Luckily, in our trust, we have agile devices and were able to adapt well to the changes. We are still able to provide good support for our learners both face to face and virtually.

The biggest challenge has been maintaining the safety of our learners and ensuring they are getting the right support. When they signed up for their learning programmes (which are challenging enough in themselves), no one could have predicted that they would also be doing it during a global pandemic. Another big challenge has been adapting to new ways of working, particularly in the virtual spaces that we now seem to rely on so much.

Covid-19 has impacted us all in some way including our mental health. For our staff, many have worked from home, which can be very isolating at times. We can underestimate the value of being able to turn to a colleague in the office and have a conversation; virtual working can sometimes take away that personal approach.

There has also been a big effect on mental health in the communities that we serve. Job losses have had a huge financial repercussions on people and their families. Some individuals have experienced loss or extended illness. All of us have had to face fear and uncertainty about when this will end, the changing ways of living with the tier systems and lockdown and whether we will ever get a sense of ‘normality’ back again.

I was fortunate in that the trust I work for recognised the emotional impact the virus was having on staff very early on and a wellbeing team was set up to support colleagues during this challenging time. Reflective sessions, mindfulness sessions and one on one support have all been offered to staff, which has been really helpful.

The kindness everyone has shown one another this year will always stay with me. In healthcare, there are always challenges and struggles - we work so hard to do the best for our patients. As nurses and healthcare professionals, we always want to do our best to make things better or a little easier for the patients we care for. None of us saw the pandemic coming and none of us can be certain when it will end, but the strength and kindness we have all shown to one another has been amazing. I have had colleagues who have emptied out their cupboards to give food to patients who were unable to get out to go shopping during the pandemic, just so they’re able to feed their families. My team and I have gone for walks outside in the rain to listen to our colleagues who were struggling and needed a sounding board. It’s important that they have someone to talk to about the challenges they are facing both personally and professionally.

If this year has taught us anything it is to really value the little things and not take life for granted. I hope it’s given us all time to re-evaluate what is really important and that we can reset and really start living. I hope we have learnt to cherish the little things going forward.

Julie

helipad porter, Southampton

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

My role as a porter has been significantly affected by the current Covid-19 situation. Many staff throughout the NHS have contracted the virus and some have tragically lost their lives.

The patient I am transporting is always my number one priority but now, I am very aware of the fact that my own health and well-being is just as important. Is this patient infected? Maybe they’re asymptomatic? Even with all the mandatory PPE, it’s hard not to worry. Wearing PPE all day causes me to overheat considerably and masks are stifling. The overuse of hand sanitiser and hand washing plays havoc with your skin. Fortunately, I’m quite resilient and cope well under pressure.

In the early stages of the pandemic, corridors were eerily quiet, outpatient departments were closed, shops closed, routine operations cancelled, and wards were cleared to accommodate coronavirus patients. Most services have now, thankfully, resumed.

We now have staff at all the hospital entrances preventing unnecessary entry and screening those that are permitted. We also have a small team on hand to promote our Covid Zero campaign by encouraging visitors to social distance, wear appropriate face coverings and wash their hands.

One of the biggest challenges has actually been trying to socially distance myself, not just from the patients but also from my colleagues. When you’re working together as a team, it can be very difficult to adhere to. So, I need to be health and safety aware at all times.

Visiting has been suspended unless there are exceptional circumstances so, being friendly, caring and sympathetic to the needs of others for the duration of the journey is essential as people are understandably upset and missing their loved ones.

Having a sense of humour to cheer people up comes in handy. I pride myself on being a good listener and can even tolerate being asked for the tenth time in one shift, “I bet you walk a few miles in a day?” By the way, the answer to that question, according to my health app, is roughly between seven and ten miles, depending on how busy the day is.

Often, at the end of the day, I suffer a sore throat. When it first happened, I thought, this is it - the first symptom of coronavirus. I now know it’s just because I’m wearing a mask all day, but it’s easy to become paranoid. Thankfully, I am supporting the weekly staff testing programme. so, if the virus was to be detected in my given specimen, I would be quickly notified. It gives me peace of mind.

Back in May, there was a huge surprise for us all at University Hospital Southampton. Morale was boosted considerably, when the street artist, Banksy, donated a large piece of artwork and left with it, a note stating, “Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.”

It measures one square metre and I’m still perplexed, wondering how he managed to sneak it in, unseen. The picture is of a boy playing with his toys. He has discarded his usual action figures for a new superhero, a nurse. He named the piece ‘Game Changer’. We’re all highly honoured. It’s intended that it be auctioned to raise money for NHS charities. Personally, I’d be sad to see it go, but it’s estimated that it could fetch in excess of five million pounds.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Generosity came in many forms this year; it was extremely overwhelming. There were flowers in abundance, pizzas galore being delivered to hungry, exhausted staff, businesses offering their services, ear savers and scrubs being made and donated, discount vouchers, free food and drinks being served to staff by an airline’s cabin crew. Thousands of gift boxes came from Amazon… there were just so many acts of kindness. And let’s not forget the Thursday night clapping and Captain Tom.

I’m praying that 2020 hasn’t been the trailer for 2021. Surely not? It’s as though I’ve been living in some sort of science fiction movie but, unfortunately, there’s not a clapperboard in sight! With the vaccine just around the corner, we can fight this and hopefully life can only get better. When I read of past epidemics and pandemics in history, such as the 1918 Spanish Flu, I know that in time, Covid-19 will also be a distant memory.

There’s a long road ahead before any sort of normality can be resumed. In the meantime, hands - face - space. Stay safe!

Karina

paramedic, West Midlands Ambulance Service

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

My role has always had potential for danger. I have worked at the scene of serious crashes, stabbings, shootings and fires, but since Covid-19, the danger feels much more real. While we have always had access to good quality PPE to protect ourselves, I always have that nagging doubt as to whether I might be taking the virus home to my children.

As an emergency care provider, paramedics are first on scene - we get close and treat if required and convey to the nearest receiving hospitals where appropriate. The risk of catching Covid-19 or passing Covid-19 onto others has been a huge concern for me. I did actually contract Covid-19 and became very unwell, trying to recover and keep my children and family virus-free was an immense task. The biggest difficulty was to get well and back out on the road again to support my colleagues and provide help to members of the public. I’m also really close to my mum and not being able to go and give her a hug for months on end was really hard.

Just about everything has changed at work to some extent: we wear PPE to every case we go to now. We wear masks in the cab as we go to incidents; even just adapting the way we work to make sure elderly patients who might be deaf can either hear us or understand what we are saying through a mask makes the job a little more difficult. And then there is the heartbreak of telling an elderly man that he can’t go with his wife of 60 years to the hospital because they aren’t accepting escorts - it makes it a much tougher role. We also have to make sure that we keep up to date with the latest research and ways of working - some patients go to different hospitals while we now have to stream potential Covid patients and non-Covid patients to different queues. Sometimes changes would happen twice a week, sometimes twice a day. I can’t say it hasn’t been hard both from a work point of view, but it’s also been very emotional.

Through all the difficulties Covid-19 has brought the NHS, my colleagues, whatever their role, have stood side by side supporting each other and ultimately the health system itself. I am proud of what we've achieved. After putting my PPE on for the tenth time one shift, I felt drained, my ears were sore and my face scratched from wearing masks for hours on end. It was just at that moment that a member of the public stopped and said, "thank you for all that you are doing.” That simple comment made such a difference to my morale. The public’s support on a Thursday evening when they came out and clapped for the NHS helped greatly. Colleagues have been waiting to pay for their lunch in a shop when a member of the public has stopped them and paid for it instead; you can’t believe what a huge difference these simple acts make to us all.

With a vaccine being rolled out, there is the possibility of very slowly returning to some normality. In the meantime, I would urge everyone to keep themselves safe by practicing social distancing, wearing a face covering and washing our hands - I know we are all tired of it, but once you have seen at first hand the devastating impact this virus has, you know just how important it is that we all keep practicing hands, face, space.

Navandeep

healthcare support worker (maternity care assistant), Leicester

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Although I had previously worked within the NHS as a healthcare assistant at Birmingham Children’s A&E, it was still a tough transition into maternity at Leicester General Hospital. I joined the trust just as the coronavirus pandemic began. As well as learning an entirely new process and grasping obstetric terminology, I had to adapt to a different way of working under Covid-19 policies. It was difficult looking after pregnant women from a distance, covered in PPE, as the role usually requires such a personal level of interaction. You also hope that you have come out of a shift not having picked up or passed on the virus, especially when you are then going back home to loved ones.

There have been many challenges working in the pandemic, but for me, working under the supervision of midwives and having to care for women while adapting to a new way of working, and also while wearing PPE for a 12-hour shift has been hard. The maternity unit is a highly emotive environment where facial expressions and hands-on care are so important, whether you are sharing joy or empathising with women and their families. It’s been difficult to adopt a stand-back and hands-off approach with care, but my experience and training as a healthcare support worker has given me the ability to quickly adapt to changing environments.

Regardless of the pressures within my job role due to Covid-19, I remain positive. I have never felt so privileged to witness and be part of such a personal and intimate moment, childbirth. During the pandemic, people have lost many loved ones and the NHS have lost many valuable colleagues. Throughout all of this though, every day I am able to see new life entering the world, and, in that moment, all my worries are forgotten.

For me, the teamwork and determination that I’ve seen in the NHS gives me huge hope for 2021. Having worked through a pandemic and witnessing how well teams can pull together, acting fast in tough times, has given me hope for the future. I believe that things can only get better for the NHS. The public don’t always appreciate the pressures that NHS staff members are under, from those behind the scenes to those who work on the frontline clinically. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of every single role within the health service. I can say that we as staff members value one another now more than ever, and I encourage anyone who has ever considered working in healthcare to explore the career opportunities the NHS has to offer. Now more than ever, recruitment is the key to protecting our health service.

Karina, Charmaine, Navandeep and Julie are supporting the ‘We are the NHS’ campaign. To find out more about a career in the NHS, please search ‘NHS Careers’ or visit ‘We are the NHS’ to find available roles and training support on offer.

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