It's June of 2020, and I'm wrapped up in full PPE delivering experimental drug treatments to Covid patients in ITU during the first wave of the pandemic. It was the height of summer (yes, we get hot days in Scotland too!), I was working my butt off, and I was miserable.
I am employed as a research nurse based at Scotland's biggest hospital, and those early days of the pandemic are a blur of images and half-remembered conversations now. Everything was just happening so damn fast. Almost all our previous research projects were put on hold, and a tidal wave of new COVID-specific studies started. Prior to the pandemic I was started on a new study roughly once every couple of months, now there were two or three new studies every week. No one - and I really mean no one - had a clue what was going to happen next, or how long the madness would last. I think the only reason I didn't drown in the sheer mind-numbing stress of it all was because I was simply too busy - there wasn't time to fall apart!
During my time in ITU I watched patients flood in, almost overwhelming the hospital's capabilities - as it was, we only managed through a combination of quick and creative thinking, repurposing of equipment, and a whole lot of hard work. My colleagues and I had conversations with distraught relatives, trying to ask their consent to enter their loved ones in to treatment trials. Sometimes multiple members of the same family were all in ITU at once. We watched patients go from unwell but generally OK, to critically ill in the space of a few hours. And tragically we watched patients die.
But we also watched them improve. I'll never forget the time I went in to hang a drug for a patient who had been sedated the entire time we had been treating her; only to find her alert, apparently orientated, and eating a yoghurt with the help of her nurse. Just before I hung her last dose of whatever drug she was on (there were so many trials, I honestly can't remember what one it was) her daughter called the unit and was able to speak to her over loudspeaker for the first time in a month. Her dose went up late that last time, but I don't care; getting to speak to her daughter was more important.
There was also the guy who I visited for some follow-up data on the ward after he had been discharged after months in ITU; and he told me that under all the PPE I was the only nurse he recognised, because I was the one with the pink hair and the undercut. Thereby simultaneously giving me the warm fuzzies, and cementing my career goal to always be The Nurse With The Cool Hair.
It maybe sounds weird, but genuinely one of the things that got me through the ITU days were my Molke bras. Life was just so much easier with comfy boobs, and no straps falling down under all that PPE. I told pretty much anyone who would listen about them, and now I like to think I fostered a brigade of comfy boobs that have been dispatched to look after the masses, and that makes me smile.
After the slew of drug treatment trials, there were the vaccine trials. This is really where my faith in humanity was bolstered. We opened up recruitment for trialling the Astra Zenica Covid vaccine in the middle of summer last year, and had to close the trial to recruitment around 48 hours later because SO MANY people signed up in those first two days. We did then later open the trial to other demographics of patients, and open two other totally separate vaccine trials too, and every time the demand was overwhelming. The enthusiasm for the trials and the support for science and clinical research absolutely blew me away.
While all of this was going on at work, my home life was no less hectic. My partner is a teacher who was trying to conduct lessons from home while also looking after our toddler. Days when I was home were spent mostly outside with our son to give my partner some time to actually get stuff done with no interruptions. I thank any deity, fairy godmother, or benevolent spirit that might be listening for our garden and the good weather we had last year. I'm not convinced I would have avoided a complete breakdown otherwise. And then, just because life wasn't exhausting enough, in August last year I decided then was a REALLY good time to expand our family and get pregnant again. Yes. I am THAT much of a masochist.
But now, almost a year later, I am writing this blog post in the bath, my beautiful brand new baby girl is downstairs sleeping in her dad's arms, and my wonderful and amazingly resilient big boy is at nursery playing with his friends that he missed so much for so long last year. And although we're not out of the woods yet, we have made it this far, we will make it out from under the shadows, and we're taking everyone else with us.
I can't speak about my pandemic experience without praising my colleagues in the clinical research facility, ITU and beyond. As a research nurse, only a portion of my job is patient-facing. I was already utterly miserable even without spending an entire shift in ITU, so I can only imagine how awful it must have been for my colleagues. I watched my fellow research nurses work themselves to literal collapse over the past year. The outpouring of support for carers and the NHS last year was amazing and brought me to tears the first time my neighbours got out on the streets to clap and cheer and bang their pots together, but it's not enough. Our healthcare service is on its knees. Our workers are exhausted, and claps and a 15% discount at Morrisons just won't cut it. We need to support our workers and safeguard our NHS, or the next time we find ourselves in dire need I don't know if the NHS will be able to pull us through. I hope I don't have to work through a pandemic again; but if I do, we need a healthcare service we can rely on, and which can rely on us.