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Where Does an NHS Nurse Find Support?

August 13, 2020 by

Though the vast Australian outback of her childhood seems worlds away from the frenzied pace of London, where she now works, twenty-three-year-old Denise Blough has found a new home – and a sense of camaraderie that has kept her going, both as a student nurse and as a member of the Bruderhof.

When I moved to London three years ago to start working toward a nursing degree, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, working in a hospital, you never do. That was one of the lessons of the pandemic that unfolded earlier this year – almost nobody saw it coming. The few who did weren’t taken seriously. Maybe some people were nervous, but personally, I never dreamed we’d be dealing with it here in England.

Overnight, everything changed: placements for student nurses were suspended, and we were all deployed as paid support staff. With more COVID patients than anywhere else in the country, London hospitals quickly filled. Before long, people were talking about triage, a term I’d always associated with a battlefield in wartime or a terrorist attack.

The atmosphere changed too. We treated hundreds of COVID patients, and there were plenty of success stories, but there were also plenty of deaths. As the numbers rose, so did the sense of doom and gloom.

Given the overwhelming number of cases during the first weeks of the pandemic, people were running around in panic mode, and there was no question of giving patients the amount of attention they and their loved ones might have expected in normal circumstances – there simply wasn’t time. That meant that patients were often left alone, struggling to breathe and frightened out of their minds, with no one to comfort them. To be honest, I’m not sure how reassuring we nurses would have been even if we could have tended to everyone one-on-one, because we certainly couldn’t communicate face-to-face: we were covered head to toe, and with masks it’s impossible to read facial expressions.

Denise BloughThe writer on the helipad at the hospital she works at in London

There was also the speed at which our COVID patients deteriorated. Many were already seriously ill when they arrived, and sometimes their condition would progress from serious to critical within minutes. Medically speaking, they should have responded to this or that treatment and improved, but again and again our expectations were dashed. Sometimes nothing we did could reverse the course of the illness. On the one hand that was terribly frustrating; on the other, it was a good lesson about the limits of medicine.

That leads me to the topic of support for healthcare workers. Many of my colleagues and I have been asked what we thought of the weekly ritual of clapping for the NHS through the lockdown.

Personally, I really appreciated it. At least on our street, it felt like everyone was coming out for a common purpose. On the other hand, a show of emotional support is just that – it’s a show. For the long term, I think Britain’s hospitals need better staffing, and the people who work there deserve higher pay. Otherwise we are going to see a lot of burnout.

Take the whole furore over Britain’s PPE shortage, and the way the guidelines were issued by the government and hospital trusts – it was crazy. Even if the guidance had been more consistent, and even though our hospital did have sufficient PPE to go around, we weren’t issued proper masks since no one knew enough about COVID to know which type were actually effective. (In a way, that was the scariest aspect of the pandemic for me – the realization that no one, not even the best and brightest in the field – knew what was hitting us and how to combat it.) In any case, many nurses on staff got sick. Others were so frightened of falling ill and infecting family members that they moved out of their homes. They self-isolated so that they could keep working without endangering their partners, parents, or children.

Speaking of which, I saw two things during the pandemic that struck me: the way hard times can inspire people to make sacrifices, and the way fighting for a common cause can result in a sense of community. There are no lone heroes when you’re all facing the same menace. People realize they won’t make it without family, friends, and colleagues.

I saw two things during the pandemic that struck me: the way hard times can inspire people to make sacrifices, and the way fighting for a common cause can result in a sense of community.I was impressed to see how people dropped their professional distance from one another and willingly jumped in wherever they were needed. When else but in a pandemic would you see management working side-by-side with ward nurses?

I also saw how, when there is teamwork, people are more willing to be vulnerable – to share the burden of suffering as well as the happy moments. When two of our nurses came down with COVID so severely that they had to be intubated and put on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), the whole hospital rallied around them. When they were discharged, the entire staff turned out to line the hallways and cheer. We did that when other patients were discharged too. It was such an uplifting, joyful experience.

The feeling of connectedness extended beyond the ranks of our hospital team. A good number of businesses provided free meals and made other sorts of donations – some for months on end. Primark distributed “well-being” boxes for NHS workers, for instance, and reps from British Air were still handing out free coffee and snacks in the staff lounges when I wrote this. (You have to wonder what their futures look like, with the downturn in the aviation industry.) We were also offered spiritual and psychiatric support.

As a member of the Bruderhof I was fortunate to have that sort of support already. I have a community to come home to every night. I sure needed it. There were days when I felt overwhelmed by everything. For a time in April I was completely physically and emotionally exhausted. I still don’t really know the source of my fatigue. It might have been COVID – I tested positive for the antibodies. But it could just as well have been the rate of patient turnover, the stress, and the anxieties looming on the horizon – and leering from every headline – during those weeks.

I believe that at our hospital, and surely elsewhere too, the pandemic has made people realize that nothing can replace human connections, even in a field being increasingly shaped and redrawn by scientific data and biomedical technology. The novel coronavirus has forced us to admit that we need one another, and that a community providing mutual support is possible. Not just as an abstraction, but as a concrete reality. I’ll always be grateful for that.


Denise Blough lives at Peckham, a Bruderhof House in London.

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