‘I cry a lot on the train home’: London medics fight to save Covid patients

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Dr Ben Lovell: a consultant in UCLH’s acute medical unit

“In 16 years as a doctor I’ve never seen things as intense as they are now. It’s just the sheer volume of patients coming in. We’re admitting three or four times as many patients a day as we’re used to doing but we’ve not been able to increase staffing because there are no spare staff. Every day we think we can’t have more patients coming in than we did today and then the next day it’s another 50% higher. That’s exhausting the resources we have and exhausting the people in the NHS who are trying to keep up. And some of us feel like we’re sinking. .

“Some patients who come in are very sick, others need only a little bit of treatment. Those who are very unwell always have breathlessness. Some people have an oxygen saturation monitor at home and they come in and tell us their numbers. And those numbers can be very frightening. People say things like: ‘I have oxygen levels of 79%, what does it mean?’. It means you’re very sick and thank God you came in. But some people just come in and say: ‘I can’t breathe’. Breathlessness is the most terrifying symptom a human being can experience because it feels like you are dying by degrees.

Dr Ben Lovell being helped into PPE before entering the secure part of the acute medicine unit.
Dr Ben Lovell being helped into PPE before entering the secure part of the acute medicine unit. Photograph: Tom Pilston/The Guardian

“When you hear them say: ‘I can’t breathe’, you are calm. This is our training; we look after people like this all the time. The first thing you do is say: ‘OK, you’re safe, we’re going to help you now’. We check their oxygen levels and then start applying oxygen and then assess if they need to be looked after in the acute medical unit or in the ITU [intensive treatment unit]. But we never panic.

“What’s causing distress for staff is: because we’ve never had to make these kind of intense prioritisation calls before, when you have 50 people, all with equal severity of illness, in front of you – which one do you do first?”

Patricia Barrazona: a senior staff nurse in the acute medical unit

“My colleagues and I work in a 19-bed ward that is full of Covid patients who are on non-invasive ventilation. Sometimes they can be weaned off that, and sometimes they need to go to ITU. The first 24-48 hours are crucial in deciding what level of care someone needs. Patients who stay in our unit generally stay for a week or so and then move on to a Covid ward. But unfortunately a good number of people just pass away.

Patricia Barrazona.
Patricia Barrazona. Photograph: Tom Pilston/The Guardian

“Dealing with death is an unavoidable part of our job. We’re really good at being resilient when patients are in their last days or hours. I have a strong personality and I can deal with physical exhaustion. But the work just now, including seeing a lot of death, does take a big toll on me emotionally and psychologically.

“I have nightmares sometimes. I wake up in the middle of the night and I can hear the sound of the ventilators alarming to tell you that someone’s oxygen saturations have dropped, or infusion pumps to say their medication has finished, or their heart monitor telling you there’s something wrong.

“We get some couples coming in, who both have Covid, and that’s really hard to deal with. They are usually separated and can’t see each other. I remember one couple who came in, in their 70s or 80s, and then a few days later their son came in, too. They all had Covid. He survived but he lost his parents, unfortunately. He lived with them and was their main carer. It was so difficult because we couldn’t do anything for him to help him feel better. To lose both your parents at the same time, it’s heartbreaking.”

Alison Gordon: a respiratory physiotherapist in the critical care unit

“Myself and my team of specialist respiratory physiotherapists work with Covid patients who are ventilated and also those who are getting better. When they’re on a ventilator we help to keep their airways clear of phlegm. If there are any areas of their lungs that aren’t inflated properly we work on that, using manual techniques which we usually use on patients with cystic fibrosis. With patients who are sedated and can’t move we also use both our arms to do upward movements on their diaphragm, to mimic a cough, again to clear their airways.

“We work with patients for weeks or even months.

ITU patients can need ongoing care for 12 or 18 months after leaving hospital. We love it when they come back and visit us and say hello, when they’re popping back into hospital

“When we eventually see a patient leave our care it’s very emotional. We call it ‘rehab joy’. I get a lot of what I call ‘train tears’ – I cry a lot on my commute home but then slap on the smile to walk through the door to my children, to be a mum.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘I cry a lot on the train home’: London medics fight to save Covid patients

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