LONDON — Nathan Lee was on a rotation in a family practice as part of his medical training when he got an email asking all junior doctors in the community to report to the hospital as part of the National Health Service’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“We didn't get any sort of induction or told what was going on. We literally went from a meeting right to the ward, and we were on the floor seeing patients,” Lee said, noting the first thing he saw as he arrived on the ward was a gurney transporting covered-up bodies.
This was late March, the same week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown measures for the United Kingdom. Hearing rumors about a lack of personal protective equipment, Lee was initially concerned about the risk to himself and others.
“If I get the virus and I’m asymptomatic or just have mild symptoms and then go about my work spreading it everywhere, then I could make the situation really bad,” he told VICE News. But when he saw the camaraderie of the hospital staff, Lee knew that not working would only make a bad situation worse.
Over three weeks on a COVID ward and in the hospital's emergency department, he did deal with inadequate PPE as he treated a range of patients: one who was brought in for getting too drunk during the lockdown, those who recovered and were sent home, and patients who could only FaceTime with family to say goodbye.
“I went from calling families once a month or maybe once every six weeks because their loved one was dying at the hospital to calling them every day, sometimes multiple times a day,” Lee said. “That’s not normal… and basically stopping the spread could prevent that.”
Lee didn’t have some of the intense experiences other ICU doctors have had -- exhausting shifts, patients on life support, and not enough beds.
“What happened wasn't overwhelming for us. But we were having more coronavirus patients coming into the door, not even knowing that they were coronavirus patients.”
Now, he’s seeing signs that things might be starting to slow down and notes his hospital hasn’t reached capacity. It’s prompted him to think about the patients who aren’t coming to the hospital for other illnesses.
“If … stopping the world economy is leading to more deaths or as many deaths as we're having with us in lockdown and having all these COVID patients die, then then I think you can start to say, well, if we keep the lockdown going, we're losing just as many lives…. It's a difficult situation,” he said.
Lee’s wife, Sophie Laughlin, was also assigned to a COVID ward at the hospital near where she's doing her training southeast of London. After three days of seeing patients, she noticed she couldn’t smell her cat’s litter box or taste garlic. She tested positive for coronavirus and self-isolated for 14 days before returning to work.
“I did freak out in the beginning,” Laughlin said. “But I calmed down after a few days and my symptoms lasted a total of six days, so I got lucky.”
Lee and Laughlin say it’s too soon to make any predictions about how working during the pandemic will shape their future. For now, they’re looking forward to the day when pubs reopen and they can take a previously scheduled trip to Japan.