On the Frontline with Hannah, ICU Nurse

In this series, we speak with friends and family on the frontline to hear about their experiences of the pandemic; the impact it’s had, the challenges they’ve faced and their hopes for the future.

The past year has seen many challenges and we’ve all struggled at times. One of the first people to reach out to me and check I was ok when we first went into lockdown and entered into the world of home schooling was my sister-in-law Hannah. This is remarkable to me because a) she is a mother of two small children and was dealing with her own childcare nightmare and b) she was an ICU nurse experiencing the terrible COVID fallout first hand.

I asked Hannah to recall some of her experiences over the course of the pandemic as a frontline health worker to remind us all of how much we have to thank them for.

What is your role? 

I am currently a Clinical Nurse Specialist but prior to this, for the last 10 years and up until January 2021 I was a sister in Intensive Care.

What has your experience of COVID been?

The biggest challenge of my career so far without a doubt. I spent the year looking after critically unwell patients in the ICU. We normally work with a ratio of 1:1 nurse and patient due to the complexity of these patients, however, during Covid we were stretched and sometimes had one ICU nurse to up to 4 ICU patients. This meant we relied on a huge cohort of colleagues to help us.

How has it impacted your day to day work?

Every element of day to day work was impacted. From the people we cared for to the lack of visiting allowed, high death rates, high stress levels, wearing full PPE for 12 hour shifts and even down to the break we had – having to sit apart and with less staff in a room to try and keep staff safe. Everyone was affected and it was a huge group effort, the ward clerks, cleaners, kitchen staff (feeding the staff), nurses from across the hospital coming to help, doctors, physios, health care assistants and so many more amazing people.

How has it impacted your patients?

The impact has been huge. The Covid patients were so poorly, and we had no set treatment so felt like we were just fighting fires the whole time rather than treating a virus. I think the biggest impact was that we weren’t allowed any visitors on ICU or in the hospital. This meant families went weeks or months without seeing their family and in lots of cases, died without their family by their side. This was the most heart-breaking thing I have experienced. I had a few iPads on the unit so we could do Skype calls to families, but as I’m sure you can appreciate, it’s not even close to enough and in lots of cases made families and patients very emotional.

How has COVID affected you (physically but also emotionally)?

Physically, I was just exhausted. We spend 12 hour shifts on our feet with very few breaks. We are working in full PPE consisting of a full length gown, hat, glasses/visor, mask, apron and gloves. This is so hot and uncomfortable to work in, especially when the unit was hot in the summer months. The masks leave pressure marks on your face and give you a headache from how tight it is. You can’t eat or drink anything in PPE so you become dehydrated and feel unwell. The unit was often too busy to take regular breaks and we didn’t want to waste PPE by coming in and out all the time.

Emotionally – I think I’m changed forever. I cried most shifts and had horrible nightmares and anxieties. The high mortality rate, lack of family, lack of time to spend with patients and increased pressures made me very unhappy.

I know I’m not alone when I say, we all had down moments, moments when we questioned our career choice, moments when we wanted to scream and cry. But, we are nurses, we are ICU nurses. A group of highly trained professionals that are just doing their job.

People have called us heroes and sung the praises of nurses, but we are just doing our job. This is what we trained for, this is what we have been doing for years but only now is it recognised and being respected. A silver lining from all of this!

What has been your biggest challenge during the pandemic? Why?

My biggest challenge was carrying on with normal life. I had a husband and 2 toddlers (3&1) during this. I had to do a 12 hour shift, or several in a row, I’d get home exhausted and try to have a conversation with my husband about his day, and then collapse into bed. The next day I’d have to plaster a smile on my face and play with my children, do the shopping, clean the house, all the usual things.

I would put my children to bed on a Sunday night and not see them again until Thursday morning. It broke my heart! I was so scared of bringing Covid home to my family and making them poorly. I know a LOT of people were worse off and left their families for long periods of time to keep them safe, but I needed my family, I needed my normal and I needed the distraction.

What are your hopes for the future?

So many things, but mostly for time. Time to see our friends and families again. Time to enjoy all the small things life has to offer. Time for those that have lost loved ones to grieve and find their new normal.

I am so grateful in so many ways, for our NHS, to my amazing colleagues, to their (and my) family for letting them work so much and being so tired, there is so much to be thankful for.

Covid has taught us a lot. It’s taught us to be kind and patient, to look after our neighbours and the vulnerable people around us, to appreciate little things, and to be so so thankful for your own health and that of your loved ones.

Time to heal, time to rest and time to be with our loved ones!

Hear more from the frontline in our interview with Greg, Junior Doctor.