My placement was never supposed to be on a COVID ward. However, when a second peak started to become a reality, teams in the hospital had to be re-shuffled to make preparations for the possibility of an influx of patients, and my team were called on to run the new COVID positive ward.
I was told by the university and the hospital that occupational health had cleared me to work with coronavirus and I should follow the staff to the COVID ward to maintain assessor consistency. I was a little taken aback. In the summer, student nurses had a choice of whether to opt in to a paid placement and were kept on ‘green wards’ where positive patients were very unlikely to be. This was a stark contrast to the situation I found myself in: being given less choice, no pay and working directly with positive patients. Thoughts of refusing the placement and shouldering the repercussions crossed my mind, but my mentors urged me to go with them and relish this unique learning opportunity. I tried to look at the bigger picture. When I’m old and my grandkids ask about the ‘virus that stopped the world’, I want to be able to say I’d been there and worked on the frontline. I want to tell them I looked the disease in the eye and was part of the team nursing people back from the brink of it. That romantic vision sold me, so with some trepidation I followed my team.
Before stepping onto the ward I had no idea what coronavirus in the hospital would look like. Over lockdown, gloomy news reports described equipment shortages, packed intensive care units and healthcare workers enveloped in PPE, straining under the intensity of their mission. Was this what I was walking into?
On my first day we had just 4 patients, all women and placed in the same bay. After handover, I remember vividly turning the corner and seeing them for the first time. The doors to the bay were closed and signs had been put up to remind staff to don appropriate PPE before entering. The lights hadn’t been turned on yet, and combined with the eerie silence of the empty ward, I felt like I was looking through the glass into a scene from a museum exhibition rather than a bay of patients. Upon closer inspection, I noticed some were dozing in their beds with oxygen masks fixed to their faces, their eyes fluttering as the dawn light slithered through the window, urging them to wake. Others were already up, sat out in their chairs waiting for breakfast to arrive. Yes, it was clear they were sick but it also struck me that they also looked just like any other patients. So, this is what COVID looks like, I thought. This is the face of the disease that has turned the world upside down for the last nine months. I didn’t feel as intimidated by it anymore.
Once I finished that first shift, friends and family messaged me to ask what it was like. I found it hard to describe. On the one hand, the PPE and safety precautions were somewhat extraordinary, but on the other, it boils down to the same routines of any other ward: washes, drug rounds, observations, blood tests, IVs and hospital food. These routines never allow you to dwell too long on the unusual situation you find yourself in and by the end of the shift my new ‘normal’ felt like just that, normal.
The number of patients on the COVID ward has sadly increased since then, but I remain optimistic as I see healthcare workers rising to the challenge doing the seen and unseen tasks needed to maximise the chances of a patient being discharged and returned to their families. My lasting impression of my time on the COVID ward is that for healthcare workers this is an ongoing battle of endurance, but one we are more prepared for this time.