'We Were Naive' – Frontline Workers Remember a Year of COVID-19

A specialist nurse, a GP and a care home worker unpack the last 12 months of working through a global health crisis.
Nana Baah
London, GB
March 25, 2021, 10:12am
Day in th
Dr. Bushera Choudry, a GP,

Nightingale nurse Dorcas Boamah and care home worker 

Karen Fieldhouse Turner.

A year ago, VICE approached people all over the UK – nurses, supermarket workers, funeral directors, GPs and delivery riders – to keep a Day in the Life diary of their experiences on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. To mark the first anniversary of the UK lockdown, we caught up with three contributors to find out how the last 12 months have gone.

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THE SPECIALIST NURSE AT THE NHS NIGHTINGALE HOSPITAL

I worked from the first week the Nightingale opened to the final week when it closed. I was temporarily living in a local hotel – I got back home in the middle of May. 

It was emotional at the end. Everyone at the unit was exhausted. When you are working on adrenaline, you can’t stop and reflect. You just work and work. l couldn't sleep properly throughout the whole experience, so l had hoped l could rest when it was all over, but l couldn't. l was anxious all the time, but l didn't know why. 

There was a woman l nursed who was very ill. When l was deployed back to the hospital that l was based at previously, l saw this patient again by chance on the ward. When she was admitted to the Nightingale, everything looked hopeless for her. But when l saw her months later, l remember crying because I just felt such joy that we made a difference to this one person, after the awful experience she had gone through.

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A portrait of Dorcas after a shift. Photo: courtesy of Dorcas Boamah

l was asked again to go to ITU to work, and l had to say no. I didn't realise how much it had all affected me until after the whole chapter ended. I wasn't sleeping. l went back to my destructive eating behaviours. I was just working and not thinking about myself and my wellbeing; l had some work to do to rebalance. 

Before all of us could comprehend the real impact and dangers of COVID, we just worked through it. The environment was challenging. It's not every day that multiple patients die on one shift. Depending on what ward it was, you would experience two to three deaths on average. But sometimes on the Nightingale, you could hear and see up to five or more people die.

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I'm now engaging with two psychotherapy sessions twice a month, which is so helpful. Instead of going to work in ICU again, l went back to the wards; this was better, it felt okay. 

I just want to be honest about how COVID nursing affected me psychologically. I'm not trying to be a hero. I'm a strong woman, challenging the common perception of what it means to be a strong woman. We are all just human with emotions. Dorcas Boamah from London, UK

THE GP WORKING AS COVID LEAD IN HER SURGERY

It has been quite lonely and isolating at the surgery. We all stay in our rooms so you can see someone from the end of the corridor and give them a wave, but I really miss that social interaction. I don’t enjoy not having that patient contact and the chats. I really look forward to getting back to some level of normality.

Right now, we’re still doing a lot of video and telephone consultations. They’re taking longer because you have to ask patients to take pictures for you to look at or try to do a self-examination and tell you over the phone. If they do come in for a face-to-face appointment, you’ve got to clean the room, put on the full set of new PPE, which we have a steady supply of now – it’s not community sourced like last year. Then do it all over again. 

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Over the past three weeks, our practice has been out to do the vaccines for our housebound patients. We go to their homes with vials of the vaccine in teams of two; a doctor and a nurse. It’s been an incredibly testing time for those patients, a lot of them haven't been out anywhere for over a year. Their social interaction has been someone bringing them their shopping, so the elderly patients are really suffering from loneliness. We’ve seen a massive increase in mental health problems since last year.

The vaccine uptake has been good. Although there has been some general hesitancy in getting it, there’s definitely been lower uptake in ethnic minority groups. We knew it already but, living through the pandemic has really highlighted to me just how much ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected as a result of discrimination, racism and socio-economic factors. There are legitimate fears which stem from a history of mistrust and barriers to accessing information. But we've been tackling the myths and misinformation out there about vaccines by making videos on our YouTube – They’re in English as well as 20 different languages. — Dr. Bushera Choudry from Salford, UK

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THE SENIOR CARE WORKER AT A CARE HOME

Maybe we were naive, thinking we would get away without an outbreak, but to have only one case in 12 months is quite unusual for a care home. I worked Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and it is thought that the breakout happened around that time. We had six staff members off work with it and six residents testing positive. One male resident was really poorly, but he didn't need hospital admission and now he's okay.

My symptoms were relatively minor. l thought l was coming down with a cold, so l did a test and it came back positive. The protocol requires you to self-isolate for ten days after you've tested positive but I felt so tired, l had to take two more weeks off work – the COVID seemed to exhaust me.

When I was entirely COVID-free, I had the Oxford vaccine. Our GP came in and vaccinated everyone. It knocked me sideways – my arm was really swollen and l felt so weak and sick. I was told that's a good sign; that the vaccine is most likely working.

None of the residents have had any visitors for many weeks. The patients who passed away were allowed a final visit from their relatives. We would let them in at the entrance closest to their room – it was unimaginably sad. The people who see their families regularly have struggled. I know it’s been a year, but l don't think our residents can even comprehend the timing of it all. Getting to see their families can't come soon enough. — Karen Fieldhouse Turner from Worcestershire, UK