At 8pm on Thursday, March 26, all over the UK, people went outside and started to clap. We cheered, we dented saucepans with wooden spoons and we sounded car horns as a sign of gratitude to the NHS workers, operating on the frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic. Weeks later, although the clapping may have stopped, the respect and admiration for those who helped treat the seriously ill remains.
The NHS was established on July 5, 1948. It was the first time anywhere in the world that completely free healthcare was available on the basis of citizenship. Today, there are roughly 1.7 million people working for the NHS, making it the fifth largest employer in the world. In the 72 years it’s been around, infant mortality has improved dramatically, the average life expectancy has risen and vaccinations have saved thousands – if not millions – of lives.
But behind the NHS is a workforce of doctors, nurses, physios, porters, cleaners and countless others keeping things running and keeping us safe. We spoke to five runners who have been on the frontline, working for the NHS during the pandemic. They shared stories of finding a sense of calm in their run commutes and training during a period of unprecedented stress and upheaval.
Jess, Senior Sister/ Ward Manager
‘I’m a senior sister/ward manager on an acute medical admissions unit. My job role hasn’t changed during the pandemic, but some of the way we work has.
‘My unit wasn’t one of the main COVID-19 wards but there was a period of a few weeks where almost all of our patients had it. We are used to treating a wide range of medical problems, so it was strange having pretty much the same treatment plan for each one. We had to adjust our parameters of what could be managed on the ward - we had to accept a greater number of very unwell patients, who in ‘normal’ times we would be escalating to the critical care teams.
‘I have been able to run a bit but not hitting the same mileage as I was before. I was trying to maintain about 80k a week but that has been dwindling recently. I often run in to work in the mornings, which is nice because it also means I can avoid public transport. Running home is more of a struggle. I’ve been lucky enough to have a supportive partner who has been amazing during this time, plus we got a Jack Russell puppy at the start of the pandemic, so she’s been a great distraction.
‘Things are starting to return back to normal at work in terms of the patients we are seeing; there haven’t been any COVID patients on my wards for a number of weeks. We’re still not allowed to have visitors on the ward except for patients who are right at the end of their lives and it is very hard on staff to decide who can and can’t visit. We now have to be very careful with how we admit patients – we are trying to swab everyone and isolate most in side rooms on admission until we know their COVID status.
‘I think running has definitely helped to keep my head clear and to act as a distraction from the pandemic. It’s something that has remained a key part of my lifestyle, albeit happening in a slightly different way.'
Jonny Todd, Paramedic
‘As a paramedic, COVID has changed the decision-making process we have to make when answering 999 calls – when we go and visit the vulnerable, they now don’t want to go to the hospital, because for the first time ever, hospitals are not the safest place to go to. We have advanced paramedics and GPs who have been really good at keeping people at home.
‘As a paramedic, we can’t say, “No, we can't go to that job, it sounds like COVID.” We quickly became aware that anyone could have it and so we had to become much more careful in terms of using protective equipment and keeping our distance from people. This is not a very natural thing to do and took some getting used to. If you see someone in cardiac arrest, your first instinct is to run over and start chest compressions, but technically, we couldn’t do that unless we were wearing PPE, which takes five to 10 minutes to put on. Realistically, we always start whether we're wearing PPE or not, but we have had to adjust and organise ourselves – normally one person drives, and the other puts on as much PPE as possible, so that at least one of the two can do something when we arrive while the other gets ready.
‘I’ve been running for about seven or eight years and it's my stress-reliever. It’s my time when I get to put things right in my head. My sleep pattern is a bit all over the place right now, as you would expect, but I’ve worked out I feel much better if I run before my shifts. Although it’s difficult to get up at half four in the morning to go for a run, it’s the best way to set me up for the day. In the last year, I have really upped my mileage and started to follow a proper training plan to add some structure to my running. I ran the Bournemouth Marathon last October and was hoping to run sub-three at the Manchester Marathon in April. Now, I’m just trying to build up a base and hope to come back next spring stronger than ever.
‘For me, running a race feels similar to working as a paramedic – in a race, it’s not until the end that you realise what you are capable of and that’s what it’s like in my job. Luckily, it’s not as dramatic as it might seem on the TV and it’s not that often that we get a big job, but when we do, like running, you rely on your training to feel comfortable that everything is going to go as well as it can go.
‘Running in the morning before work, or after work, is when I think about what went well on my last shift and what I could have changed. Over time, I come to terms with the fact that you are only capable of controlling what’s physically in your control; everything else isn’t. It’s like when you are running a race and you realise there’s headwinds, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to deal with it.
‘Things are getting a bit easier for us, because we now have a lot of extra resource with firemen and police officers helping. We are finding people are a lot more grateful for the NHS and I just hope that stays with people after the pandemic.’
Faye Jessop, Community Mental Health Nurse
‘I’m a community mental health nurse who works with adults with a range of mental health difficulties from anxiety, depression, trauma, schizophrenia, eating disorders and bipolar. I’ve been a nurse for almost 20 years.
‘Working during COVID has been interesting and challenging in its own way. Personally, I would never say I’m on the frontline – I can only give the staff working in general hospital wards my utmost respect (the same goes to the shop workers and delivery drivers working at this time). The most difficult part for me has been having very limited face-t0-face contact with clients who need help. It’s difficult to build a relationship when speaking on the phone and a lot is communicated via body language.
‘When someone is talking about previous trauma or a difficult relationship they are in with someone they are still living with, it’s very hard for clients to do this from their home. Sometimes, the thoughts of trauma can ‘remain’ with them in their home and previously it has helped for them to come and see us in a different building. Ironically, for many years we have been working on breaking down social isolation and encouraging service-users to go out and meet people. Now we have to tell them the opposite!
‘At the end of each shift, I mentally unwind by trying to recognise three things that have gone well. If anything has been difficult, I accept I did my best with the knowledge I had and remember that things will always be different tomorrow.
‘I got into running when I switched from working on a busy rehab ward to being a community mental health nurse, where there is a lot of driving, and a lot of sitting down, to be honest. The hours made it difficult to go to the gym, so I started running. Initially, I would go very early in the morning (so no one could see me) and building up the miles. I built up to doing this three or four runs a week. I still love going out early, when the birds are singing and the sun is coming up. Running early gives me space and time to think about the day ahead. If I leave it until after work, for me, there’s just too many people about, much more noise and many excuses not to run. I have a young family, and rightly or wrongly, I know I will feel guilty heading out for a run when I get home.
‘I ran the York Marathon last October and loved it. I was having a really difficult time at work and running was my escape. Marathon training helped to build my self-esteem and confidence. Now, with everything that’s happening in the world, I’m really glad I collected loads of medals and race T-shirts last year. This year, with all the races off, I’m happy to just enjoy my running, even if it’s just a steady four miles. I’m trying to mix things up and have been going out on my bike and trying to work on some strength training.
‘During the pandemic, I’ve seen more and more people out running, some just starting and some more experienced. I always like to give a little wave and smile (socially distanced, of course). I’ve been suffering with an Achilles injury, so haven’t been running as far as I was, but sometimes you’ve just got to accept where you are. Just being out in the lovely Yorkshire wolds is the best medicine for me.
‘This time has taught me a lot about the importance of friendships – I miss running with my little group of friends, and my running club, the Pocklington Runners. It’s taught me that running sometimes has to take a backseat, and that’s OK; things change, my goals will still be there.’
Kevin O'Gallagher, Cardiology Registrar
‘I’m a cardiology registrar, so I’m training to be a consultant in cardiology, and at the moment I’m doing a PHD. Normally, I spend four days of my week doing research and one day a week doing clinical heart procedures, for example, putting stents in, treating patients for heart attacks, that kind of thing. The main way my job has changed is that during the pandemic, all of us clinical PhD trainees have been brought back into full-time clinical work, so essentially I’ve gone from being a cardiology researcher to a full-time clinical doctor again.
‘But my work hasn’t changed nearly as much as it has for some people. When I think of our cardiology research nurses, some of them have gone from doing a mostly office-based job to working in an intensive care unit for 12 hours a day. Their resilience has been awe-inspiring to me to see how they have, at a moment’s notice, gone up to the intensive care units and completely changed the way they work.
‘As cardiology doctors, we will review and give advice on any COVID patients who might have heart problems, so we’ve been up in the intensive care units and on COVID the wards in A & E. At my hospital, I have certainly felt very well protected. I’ve always had the PPE that I needed, but I think anyone who has read the news will know that that’s not necessarily been the case in all settings around the country. I haven’t personally had concerns about my own health, more so that of my family. It can be difficult to ‘turn-off’ from the pandemic. I’ve been doing a lot of run and cycle commutes, which I find very relaxing. I’ve not been using public transport and I can’t see myself going back to using the train full-time after this has washed over.
‘I grew up in Northern Ireland near the mountains and there’s a race that is (fingers crossed), still scheduled to run this year called the Mourne Skyline. It’s a 20-mile mountain race, which I did for the first time last year and really enjoyed it and so have entered again this year. Even if the race is cancelled, the next time I get a chance to fly home to Northern Ireland, I will be out running in the mountains.
'My running club, Wimbledon Windmilers, has organised virtual iterations of our club races. So, for example, on Friday evening I was up on Wimbledon Common logging my effort for our virtual three-mile handicap race. The club has just been fantastic. Everyone has been very supportive of one another and I’ve felt very proud to be a member of the club during this time
'The pandemic has made me recognise more than ever that being healthy is a precious thing; it’s something we probably all take for granted. As runners, we’re particularly susceptible to forgetting how lucky we are to just go out and run, when there are so many people who don’t have their health. The tragedy of how many tens of thousands of people have died during this brings all that home.
‘The clapping has been amazing; it’s given people an opportunity to show their appreciation and I think for a lot of healthcare workers, it’s been a reminder of how special this system that we’ve got is. We’ve all taken part in it and have been out clapping ourselves. I thought it was amazing and certainly very heart warming. The family across the street from us, their kids have been putting rainbows up in the window and writing nice messages; I vividly remember one night I was going in for a night shift and as I left the house I walked past their window and saw this and it was so uplifting. It’s cliche but it reminds you of the very reason you are going in to do what you do.’
Sarah Marsden, Anaesthetic Doctor
‘I am normally an anaesthetic doctor and I cover a little bit of intensive care as part of my job. During the pandemic it’s been nearly all intensive care. The COVID-19 intensive care ward has been really, really busy. I work at a small district hospital and during that time we worked at four times our usual bed capacity to keep things under control. To do that, we’ve had to repurpose operating theatres and borrow stuff from elsewhere.
‘At the point that a patient comes to us in intensive care, they are incredibly sick and very unstable, and for that they are quite unpredictable to look after, which is difficult. We also hadn’t accounted for how much PPE would add to the challenge. It’s really hot behind all the protective equipment and when you are working in there for three or four hours at the time, you start feeling really thirsty and faint sometimes. Also, communicating to patients and co-workers is really difficult because you can’t hear properly, so even just asking a question to a nurse is a challenge, and you start feeling a bit frustrated.
‘Not being able to let families of patients in to visit their loved-ones was also very hard. When a patient is really sick, or even coming to the end of their life, we always try to bring in their family and I think our staff have really missed that. We’ve had to set up a communications team that can keep in touch with patients’ families and let them know how they are doing. We’ve also had iPads delivered so that we could do FaceTime calls.
‘I think for me to process all that goes on every day, it’s been really useful to speak to my colleagues. The consultants that have been great at putting things into perspective and analysing previous pandemics. We’ve been quite good at debriefing and supporting each other through difficult days when patients have passed away, and the hospital has been really good at supporting us as well.
‘Carrying on running and exercising outside has also been really good for me. It’s been a bit of a challenge to fit this in and it has involved going for runs really early in the morning and being quite flexible with my exercise routine. I have to avoid going outside at busier times, because I am aware that I work in the most infectious part of the hospital and I’m worried about infecting others. Running right now is the time when I do my thinking. It’s time away from all the beeping.
‘My original plan for the year was to run the Barcelona marathon in March and then move into the triathlon season June through to September. I had two triathlons planned and an Ironman, all of which have now been cancelled. So, all my training now has been for fun and sanity really. It was a bit strange at the beginning because I use Training Peaks and watching all the things disappearing on Training Peaks was a bit scary. I started thinking, "What do I do now?" But then I saw it as an opportunity to do all the strength and conditioning training I don’t normally bother with.
‘Virtual training has been a really big thing for me too. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was a bit reluctant to go outside on my bike. I was worried I would crash and I didn’t want to ask for time off from work when they most needed it, so I have been doing a lot of training on Zwift and other virtual training platforms and it’s been quite good.
‘Being a long-distance runner has helped me during the pandemic. On a practical level, being physically fit has helped me tolerate being so hot and uncomfortable wearing PPE for 12 hours. I also think long-distance running gives you a mentality that you can put up with being uncomfortable for a length of time. It gives you a bit of perspective and teaches you to think, “This is rubbish now, but it will get better.”’
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