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International Nurses Day 2020: MDX staff describe working on NHS frontline during COVID-19 crisis

“Everyone is just doing their best to keep these patients alive.”

MDX staff have spoken about the extreme challenges they face working on the NHS frontline during the COVID-19 crisis as the University celebrates International Nurses Day.

Many academics from the Health & Education Department have been working in hospitals and community care roles as part of the NHS’ incredible effort to save lives during the worst global pandemic in 100 years.

International Nurses Day is held on May 12 every year to recognise the contribution they make to society.

Carmel Clancy, (pictured below) Head of the School of Health & Education, said: "As NHS England says, this is our time - 2020 has been designated by the World Health Organisation as the first ever global Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

"We, as nurses and midwives, make up the largest staff group of the NHS workforce.

"At Middlesex University, along with our clinical partners, we prepare students from a wide range of backgrounds that represent our diverse communities to become highly skilled professionals.

"This year, more than ever, nurses and midwives are demonstrating their skills, knowledge, and compassion, and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, their bravery and courage.

"We are immensely proud and humbled by  their commitment and the expert care they bring to their work – in clinical practice, in the wider community and here at Middlesex University."

Carmel continued: "It is time to be proud of the huge impact they make on the lives of so many.

"This is the time, in such difficult circumstances, to say thank you to our nursing and midwifery academics and students, to celebrate their many talents and expertise, and the commitment they make to improving the lives of those they care for. We salute you!"

Three staff members who work in intensive care and critical care at acute London trusts have talked about working during the coronavirus outbreak.

Orla Hillary, (pictured at the top of this story) a Clinical Skills Lecturer, has been working in intensive care where she said the unit has had double its normal capacity of patients during the most intense periods.

“Every time you walk into the unit there are extremely sick patients everywhere all on breathing machines, all confirmed to have the COVID-19 virus and colleagues walking around in full PPE for 13 hours a day,” said Orla.

“Everyone is just doing their best to keep these patients alive.”

But Orla “wanted to go back and help” her NHS colleagues, where she was working full time up to August last year, after hearing from colleagues how tough the situation was at the start of the outbreak.

Some patients with COVID-19 have been in intensive care for more than a month, and one of the hardest things is knowing these patients are alone with no family around according to Orla.

Around 120 helpers including physios and speech and language therapists have now been drafted in to support staff and Orla said “they have been absolutely incredible”.

Cariona Flaherty, (pictured below) a Senior Lecturer in Adult Nursing and Programme Leader for Nursing Associates, has been working shifts in an intensive care unit.

Normally it’s a one patient to one ITU nurse ratio but during the pandemic it has been as high as 3 to 4 patients to one ITU nurse with help from a range of ward nurses and support workers according to Cariona.

“The staff are just under immense pressure, and the patients are incredibly sick and unpredictable in terms of being well one minute and then really ill the next and the situation changes within minutes,” said Cariona.

“The staff are scared, the patients are scared and you’re seeing things you never want to see in an intensive care unit because you want people to get better.

“This virus in itself makes people really unwell, and it’s people across all age groups.”

Orla added the patients in ICU have included those "without existing medical conditions".

Laura Whitehead, a Lecturer in Adult Nursing and Programme leader, BSc Nursing (Adult) Apprenticeship route, has been working bank shifts in Critical Care and has been due to work in the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre in London as part of the education faculty.

While she worked following the London Bridge terror attacks in 2017, the coronavirus outbreak has been an even more intense experience.

“With coronavirus it’s how intense the situation has been for a long period of time, there’s no let up,” she said.

“With trauma people are normally sick for six or seven days but with patients who are suffering from coronavirus, it’s a lot longer.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had this many patients who are unwell for such a long period of time.”

Laura  (pictured left) agreed the virus hits every age group not just people with underlying health conditions, emphasising why social distancing is important for all members of the community.

“We have people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who work full time and are fully independent and have no medical history, and I don’t think the media has been very good at reporting the different patient groups in intensive care,” Laura added.

“Maybe some young people have been blasé and especially with social distancing and the lockdown so you’ve got teenagers and 20-year-olds thinking it’s not something I will get and not something I’m susceptible to but the story in intensive care is they are and still very, very sick.

“And obviously we don’t know the long term health implications.”

Cariona explained how relatives are not onto the wards because of the risk of infection, but staff are allowing them to communicate with loved ones through iPads.

Orla described how working in the new plastic suits, which were included as an alternative to gowns in recent Public Health England guidance, are extremely uncomfortable to wear.

She said: “Your scrubs are a different colour when you take them off because you’re sweating so much and it’s hard enough work without these plastic suits.”

The intensive care nurses said the situation has improved slightly in the past week but still expressed caution.

Cariona said: “Wearing PPE for 13 hours a day is horrific in every way shape or form.

“It’s unsustainable to expect staff to work in this environment for a long period of time so it’s good to see the numbers drop so you know that it is somewhat getting better

“The NHS has been and is outstanding and the staff are a credit for everything they do.

“I am immensely proud and humbled to know and work alongside such an outstanding team.”

Sue Brailey,  (pictured below) a Midwifery Lecturer, has been working as a community midwife, explained they have to keep “home visits to a minimum because of the risk of infection”.

“We’re trying to keep face to face consultation to a minimum of 15 minutes but obviously when women are in labour that’s no longer practical,” Sue added.

“So we’re wearing gloves and a mask and if they have got symptoms, we’re wearing full PPE.”

Sue, who is either working at community clinics or a hospital, said the COVID-19 outbreak has completely changed the way they work.

“We’ve completely refigured our services in order to maintain a maternity service, so normally I would be seeing our clients, they would be having continuity of service and the option of a home birth but none of that is happening at the moment,” she said.

“We’ve had 30% of staff sick because they had to self-isolate but the situation is stabilising now.”

In the next few weeks, Sue said they hope to reintroduce the homebirth service as the ambulance service can once again guarantee response times.

Orla, Laura, Cariona and Sue have praised Middlesex University senior staff for being supportive as they work during the crisis.

They have also been heartened by the Clap for Carers every Thursday and hope the goodwill for the NHS continues in future.

Cariona said: “People are incredibly appreciative of everything the NHS is doing and I just hope the appreciation doesn’t stop when this is over.”

Orla added: “It does feel very special to be recognised by the public but it’s a shame it’s taken a pandemic to make everyone realise how special the NHS is.

“But there are many people out there who genuinely want to support us and it’s really nice that they are acknowledging the NHS and going out there to recognise we’re putting our lives on the line.

“It’s a lovely thing to see and hear and I’d do it every week if I can.”

Find out more about studying nursing and midwifery at Middlesex

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