“YOU HAD TO CRY. THIS ISN’T A NORMAL SITUATION”
Rebecca Hunter, 30, is a nurse on a respiratory ward at the Northumbria Emergency Care Hospital
My first day, in my first ever nursing job, was when COVID really exploded. It was early April, and almost every patient on my ward – which had previously been mostly for those with long-term lung conditions – was in the very worst stages of the virus. They were all hooked up to oxygen machines. Many were dying each day and I’d be with them at the end. It’s impossible not to get attached; there was the woman who – as she died – listened to her son-in-law sing You Are My Sunshine over Zoom. Straight after, with no time to pause, I had to go to the next bed, where another man was dying. I read out messages from his family as he squeezed my hand. I couldn’t help but cry. “It’s OK, pet,” he said to me. “I’ve had a nice life.”
At first, I was hard on myself for letting my emotions show. I’d try to limit my grief to the drive home. But as the months went by, even my toughest colleagues would break down. You had to. I came to realise that as long as I can do my job – and I can, very well – then it’s OK to cry. This isn’t a normal situation.
In all honesty, I don’t know how I coped during that first wave. Little things helped, like the friend who texted me daily – with no expectation of a reply. But mostly it was witnessing how incredible people are, and how we come together in a crisis. My colleagues were so smart: learning on their feet about how to adapt and what treatments were seeing success. On one of the hottest days of the summer, when we couldn’t have the air conditioning on in case it was spreading the virus, one of the senior managers sent us cans of pop to cool down with. They were his treat, on his day off.
As a team, we all made the decision that we would never let someone die on their own. I’m so proud that we’ve kept to that. I remember one week we were so short-staffed and a dying woman needed care. But there was no one to tend to her, apart from Cheryl, a colleague who had lost her own husband to the virus. Because she was grieving, we’d kept her away from end-of- life patients. But she decided she had to be there for this woman. She said, “This lady needs me.” The courage that must have taken still astounds me.
The second wave, in winter, was worse than the first: we knew more, but it was much busier. There have been so many points when pretty much all the beds in intensive care have been full – that’s a lot of pressure on a team working in an already intense environment. That’s what many people don’t understand: even if you’re not frightened of catching the virus yourself, the measures are there to protect the NHS. I never want to scare people but, with conspiracies going around, it’s important to share the reality of what I've seen day in, day out.
Despite everything, I am positive. Living through this has made me so grateful for what I have. I can’t say it hasn’t been traumatic but – and I know this sounds fluffy – I can go for a walk and feel happy. I appreciate everything so much more now.
“I LOST MY JOB AND MY HOME”
Rochelle,* 27, worked in hospitality before the pandemic struck
I thought that 2020 was going to be my year. My son was at nursery and I was working as a bar supervisor at one of the biggest stadiums in London. I was looking forward to working hard, making more money, and then... boom! Lockdown.
I was put on furlough and everything was so uncertain – my return-to-work date just kept getting pushed back. But I knew they weren’t going to let huge crowds of people back into the stadium. I started to apply for more jobs, but I was up against thousands of others. I just tried to keep myself in the right mindset and trust that a job would come along – even if it wasn’t the sort of role I’d have done before. But then I’d get emails saying I was overqualified!
It helped knowing there were so many others like me – it wasn’t that we didn’t want to work, we just couldn’t. There were no jobs. I concentrated on keeping myself sane and those around me healthy – my mum was recovering from breast cancer and my dad has a heart condition. We also lost my grandma in August. Having to grieve and support my dad when we couldn’t see each other was really tough.
Then, in September, I had to move out of my mum’s as my ex showed up – I had a non-molestation order out against him – so it wasn’t safe for me to be there any more. It meant I had to be placed in temporary accommodation, making me homeless.
I did lose myself for a while. I’d been trying to be so positive but it was a lot to take on. Slowly, I’m getting my happy back. I had to keep smiling for my son.
Rochelle has been working with homeless charity Beam. To help someone like her get back on their feet, go to Beam's wesbite.
“OUR GUESTS WATCHED OUR FIRST DANCE OVER ZOOM”
Jann Tipping, 34, and Annalan Navaratnam, 32, a London nurse and doctor, got married in their hospital chapel
Our wedding was set to be a massive celebration. My family were travelling over from Northern Ireland and Annalan’s from Sri Lanka. It was set for the Bank Holiday in August, so everyone was going to make a real holiday of it. But very early on in the crisis, we realised we would have to cancel. We still desperately wanted to marry each other, though – which is why, after chatting to the chaplain of St Thomas’ Hospital, where we both work, we arranged the ceremony for 20th April. The chapel is beautiful and has been part of the hospital for 150 years, and we were able to have two witnesses: a nurse I job-share with, and Rebecca, an NHS volunteer and one of my oldest friends, who is also, handily, a wedding photographer! She helped with everything, even finding a wedding dress for me when the original one didn’t arrive on time.
As lucky as we have been, we’ve come through a lot – our jobs have been incredibly tough, and we’ve lost people we love. But we’ve made a life for ourselves out of really hard conditions. I’ve come to realise that wherever Annalan is, that’s home.
We got engaged in 2018 and we’d been waiting so we could afford to have a huge day with everyone. Without that, I just didn’t want to wait any longer. And we still managed to include our family and friends – we sent a bottle of champagne to each household and everyone made speeches over Zoom. We even did our first dance on camera! It’s been a testing year – not just for us, but for everyone – but I know if it wasn’t for Jann it would have been so much worse. With her, I feel indestructible.
"HE MONITORED EVERYTHING I DID”
Sophie,* 21, from Norwich, explains how she left her abusive partner last year
When the first lockdown hit in March 2020, I was living with my boyfriend, Lewis,* who had become increasingly emotionally abusive over the three years we’d been together. If I spent more than five minutes in the bathroom, he’d knock on the door and ask if I was texting another guy. He made a rule that I couldn’t go on my phone after he fell asleep. He’d monitor who I followed on Instagram and wouldn’t let me eat what I wanted. As he didn’t let me out much anyway, lockdown didn’t feel that different. Plus, he lived in my room, but thankfully I shared my flat with a friend, Ryan,* which made me feel a little safer. I’d become increasingly isolated from my female friends.
When we first met, Lewis was funny and charismatic, and everyone liked him. It felt like a healthy relationship. But slowly things started to change. If I wanted to meet friends after he’d finished at work, it would turn into an argument. Soon, I felt iffy if I was going out without him. I wanted to tell my friends what was going on, but I couldn’t because Lewis would read my messages.
As the pandemic hit, the flat turned into a pressure cooker, waiting to blow. Lewis was at his most abusive after drinking, and we’d started to drink more. When he became so frustrated during arguments that words weren’t enough, he would throw drinks in my face, kick and push me, and once hurled a glass at the back of my head. In early May, we had yet another petty argument and he threw a games controller at me and smashed a hole in my wall. That night, I tried to leave him, but he broke down and cried uncontrollably.
The week after, I snapped. “The only reason I stayed with you is because you made it too hard to leave,” I told him. He stormed out of the flat, saying he was going to a bridge. I was terrified he’d take his own life. When I couldn’t find him, I realised I had an opportunity, so I hurried home and packed a bag, but when I reached the door, Lewis was outside. I was screaming as he dragged me back upstairs. He went to the toilet and my flatmate looked at me and said, “I’ll keep him talking, just go,” so I fled to my dad’s. Later, Ryan called and said Lewis had assaulted him and wrecked the flat. Ryan had phoned the police, and Lewis spent the night in a cell.
Even though I felt sad it was over, I was also overwhelmingly relieved. Life changed for everyone last year, but it’s been torturous for women trapped with abusers. I couldn’t shower alone or go to the toilet without a knock on the door, so even those things feel like freedom to me now.
“I GRIEVED FOR MY DAD THROUGH A WINDOW”
Marty Cofie, a personal trainer from London, lost her dad to COVID in March 2020
My dad had only been ill for 48 hours before he died at home, with my mum by his side. We know now that it was COVID. The government had just enforced the first lockdown, so I’d given him a kiss a few days earlier. My big, strong, politically fierce Ghanaian dad, who was a grafter and provider. How could the virus take someone so vibrant in such a short space of time? Our new world order meant that I couldn’t hug my mum. All we could do was stand at her window, our hands together but separated by a pane of glass.
Almost a year has passed, and my mum is still incredibly worried about the virus and passing it onto those she loves, but I’ve been able to touch her since we formed a bubble. I felt the weight of her soul in my arms in that first embrace. I couldn’t unclench.
I’ve felt lonely. I’ve isolated myself from friends because I needed to process the trauma. My neighbour occasionally drops round dinner or a bottle of wine. At one point, between lockdowns, my closest friends came over with champagne and we danced in the garden –that they were there was enough.
Losing Dad has broken us. COVID has exacted its price on my family, but since he died, I’ve gone back to the core values he taught me about being a good person. I’m a better mum because of it. Being locked in a house together has given me the space to understand my children beyond the relationship of mother and sons – we’ve become allies. And it’s brought my mum and me closer; we’ve had conversations we wouldn’t otherwise have had. I don’t think I saw her as a woman before – she was always just my mother.
Each morning in the shower, I write “Dad” into the steam. That’s when I think of him. Every day is different: sometimes I wake up feeling positive, at other times there’s a drop in my stomach and I miss him so much it’s painful. I’m a personal trainer, and one thing that’s kept me going is the free Zoom class I teach every day at 9.15am. I started it to help others, but sometimes it’s my only contact with the outside world. My Dad’s ashes are in an urn on his favourite armchair in the living room of our family home. When the world opens up, we’ll take him back to Ghana. But we still haven’t had a funeral. There are too many of us, and in Ghanaian culture, we must all be together – siblings, cousins, everyone in the family. We’ll have a celebration as soon as we can – when there are no limits on numbers. It’s all or nothing, so we choose all.
“THE PANDEMIC STOLE TIME, BUT FREEZING MY EGGS GAVE IT BACK”
Nikki Clare underwent three cycles of egg-freezing last year
I’d always naively assumed that the only thing stopping me from having children was finding the right partner. But then, at the age of 34, I discovered that my egg count was very low. It was late 2019 and I’d come out of a long-term relationship at the start of the year. After calling my mum as soon as I stepped out of the clinic, I decided, then and there, that I was going to freeze my eggs. I booked three cycles – enough to extract the 20 to 24 eggs they recommend to give a good chance of having a baby. I paid over £15,000 in total – costly for an insurance policy that might not even pay out.
During my first cycle, I had to inject myself with medication to stimulate my ovarian follicles, and once enough had grown, I then administered a “trigger” injection before going into the clinic for the egg retrieval. Waiting to hear how many eggs had been extracted was agony. I’d heard stories of women getting 25, so when the doctors told me that I had six, I felt deflated, but empowered. Six was better than none. In the first week of March, I had my second cycle, which brought nine eggs, and I stood a great chance of getting to 20 in my last cycle.
But then lockdown hit. Not only was I left uncertain about when I’d be able to complete my third cycle, but I was also unable to date. My hope is to have children with a partner and never have to use my frozen eggs, and suddenly neither was possible. The clock seemed to tick faster than ever.
My clinic reopened in July, but it wasn’t until October that I finally had my last cycle. While I grieve for the time I haven’t been able to look for a partner, taking control has been my silver lining. There’s no guarantee my eggs will produce a baby, but where the pandemic stole time, freezing my eggs has given a bit of it back.
“GOING THROUGH CHEMO IN LOCKDOWN WAS TOUGH”
Beth Clyde, 21, from Glasgow, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma less than a week before the first lockdown
I’d been having bad chest infections for months. I was also absolutely exhausted, just struggling through my life. My doctor had tried all sorts of different things – from antibiotics to vitamin injections – but none of them were working.
It was during one of these injections that the nurse commented on my cough, thinking there was a chance it was COVID. This was around March 2020, and so much was still unknown about the virus that I was sent for a chest X-ray. That showed I had fluid on my lungs, so I had to pack a bag and be admitted to hospital straight away.
After three weeks of tests I received my diagnosis. I had stage-two Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. I’d never heard of it. I didn’t even know it was cancer whenI first heard the words. As I couldn’t have visitors, my phone was on loudspeaker so my mum could hear what the doctors were saying. That was one of the hardest parts, trying to process all the information I was being given without anyone beside me. That, and when I first had to go to chemotherapy. I was being treated as an outpatient and was dropped off at the door, not knowing what to expect and having to enter alone. But as time went on I got to know the nurses, who would sit and chat with me – I learned all about their lives and they learned about mine. I was also relieved that they now knew what was wrong with me and could treat it.
Because chemotherapy depletes your immune system, I had to shield for four months while living with my mum. I couldn’t see friends or family. But, in a way, that made some moments easier – if I’d been able to see them it would have got really emotional and that would have been so draining.
I could just use the time to give in to whatever my body needed – I slept a lot. I also began to open up on social media about my illness, connecting with others going through cancer, and eventually set up my YouTube channel. It’s giving me a new perspective – now I’m in remission, I’m feeling more like myself again. I’ve met so many other women my age going through what I did and want to support them.
“I LAUNCHED A NEW BUSINESS”
Ellie Taylor, 23, from Sandwell, set up Blossoms Activity Farm in March
I have always wanted to work with animals. I studied animal care and then worked in vet practices for a bit before coming up with the idea of launching a farm where children could get hands-on experiences with animals. The Prince’s Trust gave me funding and advice, and I began to search for land in January 2020. But everything fell through when COVID hit – I lost my land and all my animals had to live in different places. At one point, I had 10 chinchillas in my living room!
It was tempting to give up, but I decided to launch a mobile business, bringing animals into schools, care homes and kids’ parties. Of course, that’s been really hard as well – and is impossible to do when we’re in a full lockdown. I’ve got 18 animals that need to be fed and cared for, and as it’s a new business, I’m not eligible for furlough schemes. But in August last year, I was able to work, in full PPE. All the animals are in one place now, too. It’s amazing seeing everyone’s faces. Bringing animals to people has added a lot of joy to a really tough year.
*Names have been changed
This feature originally appears in the April 2021 issue of Cosmopolitan UK, out now.
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