So Boris hosted a lockdown party. Another violation of the rules. The rules he and his government made to keep us safe, to keep the NHS fires burning, the same rules that they then very much disregarded and broke.
I think back to May 2020. Home schooling. Lockdown. The loneliness of not seeing friends and family. The weary sense that the pandemic was going on for far longer than we’d all hoped for (oh how naïve). And I think of the constant heaviness in mine and my colleague’s chests. We were so tired, we were fighting the first wave, we’d given all we could. Little did we know that we’d have to find a strength far greater, a resilience much tougher. Little did we know then that actually we were still just at the start of such madness. We would be asked to give so much more, and still now 18 months later we are still being asked for more, for extras, we are still being stretched, being pulled and torn and made to feel guilty if we tire, if we say no. Currently the press vilify us for taking annual leave, for having time off sick, even when we the health care professionals get covid, it somehow becomes our fault.
May 2020 It was almost fascinating yet heart breaking to see the zombie-like covid patients being stepped down from ITUs. The half humans emerging onto our wards, our rehab centres. It was roughly this time that the UK’s first wave of long covid sufferers, the sickest first wave patients were truly starting their recovery journeys. As a health care system, we again had to adjust to how we cared for these people, these young, previously independent people who now needed to be fed, who couldn’t walk, who had pressure sores on their faces from their nasal gastric feeding tubes, who had trache holes from their long-term ventilation. Some of these very patients were in ITU at the very same time Boris Johnson was. While he himself struggled to breath so did these others. While nurses and doctors, physios and health care support workers rushed around Boris a flurry of activity to keep him alive, at other bedsides only meters away people were dying, were in cardiac arrest, were having ventilators switched off their bodies too fragile, too damaged to continue. Boris made it, he pulled through but so many did not. And others were only just getting better, they had survived the first part of their covid journey. Starting months of rehab, learning to talk, to walk to feed themselves. Seeing loved ones for the first time in months on video screens, STILL unable to touch or be touched by them.
Boris had a party. I recall crying with my son, he couldn’t focus on the computer screen which was his teacher, he couldn’t understand not seeing his classmates, not visiting people’s houses, he missed his grandparents (so did I). At key worker school he couldn’t understand where his usual teacher was, why he was in a different classroom, where were his friends? where had his support bubble gone? He didn’t understand. He was 5 then. The days I worked he went to key-worker school, my days off he and his sister were with me. He could not comprehend this new and unsettling world. But we kept to the rules, we stayed indoors except to exercise, our daily walk, we didn’t go in other’s houses, we kept to the rules Boris and co made. I’ll say it again, we kept to the rules.
My patient was a previously fit and well 55-year-old. She had 4 grown up children, I know because I read this in her ITU journal. I visited her on the ward as a critical-care step down check. She had been transferred from ITU, she was getting better! I was excited to see her, because although she had no idea who I was I remembered her. I’d seen her in ITU during a night shift, I’d volunteered to help for a few hours. I’d rolled her, given her mouth care and talked to her while she slept in a chemical induced coma, while the drugs fought to keep her organs alive. Covid was still a relatively unknown beast then. We used hope and prayer along science to get these patients through. To see her now gave me a great sense of hope, a small shred of happiness to cling too, here was a (sort off) happy ending.
I told her I had looked after her in ITU, she looked at me blankly a glazed stare. She couldn’t remember of course, but even if she could her vocal cords were so damaged that she was still unable to talk. She was also so weak that she hasn’t even got the strength to try to talk. She would soon be having speech and language therapy alongside all the other therapies she would need. I noticed that the skin on her foot was dry, it looked uncomfortable. At that moment her mobile phone rung, it was rested on her bedside table. I answered it for her, I held it to her ear so she could hear the voice of her son. Her response was an almost inaudible mumble, but on those lips I saw just the faintest smile. I then spoke to her son, I reassured him best I could that she was doing better.
‘Coco butter, she likes coco butter, can I drop her some off?’ He pleaded, ‘She always smells of coco butter. I miss that smell.’
I can’t let him into the hospital, he knew this, but I too understood he was desperate. He wants to see his Mum, as he says he misses even the smell of her.
Later I return to the ward, I bring with me a tub of coco butter. I’m lucky enough to have a shop on the hospital site, I’ve brought her some, as I promised her son I would. I rub it on to the dry sink on her feet, I do this for a few minutes until my bleep goes off and I’m called to an emergency. A peri- arrest, another Covid patient just starting their own covid journey.
That night I went home to my own family. My children, my husband, all fatigued and irritable. The children want to see friends, my husband tired from homeworking for 14 hours a day. I promise that in the morning we shall go for a walk, which we do. We feel the mid-may sun on our faces, the breeze in our hair. It’s my day off, but now I’m Mum, now I’m fighting the 5- and 7-year-olds who miss the world as they knew it. Some of the hardest moments of May 2020 where with my children. These little people who craved normality and lacked the maturity to understand what was at risk, why Mummy sometimes wipes away tears from her eyes even though we were laughing, why even when we do see friends in the park we can’t share our picnic with them, we can’t have them home for a playdate and a cup of tea. We were keeping to the rules. Those moments I needed to reflect, I needed to grieve, I needed to understand the hours I’d spent at work. Instead, I had to be strong, dependable, able, positive, I had to protect my children. There was no time for me. There was no time for me to feel. In May 2020 I felt like I lived the whole month in a state of numbness, a state of can-do, don’t think. I know many of my fellow health care professionals felt the same, we were functioning, but only just and because we had too.
And now, to hear of another government illegal gathering (that’s what this was!). I have no anger left, I’m defeated, depleted, exhausted as most of my colleagues are. I don’t have the energy to scream and shout, to write emails, to hold up placards outside parliament. I don’t have the fight in me, instead I’m left with a sense of disappointment. A sense that me, my colleagues, my patients, my family, have all been let down, have been laughed at, made a fool of. Because those that break the rules, are laughing at the ones that keep to them. Those who break the rules do it with no regard for those who keep to them. We have a UK government that holds no regard for its people.
In May 2020 I recall walking in the woods with my children, my mind was filled with the patients I’d seen overnight. As the leaves dance above our heads, I silently prayed for the 36 year old we had intubated, praying that he survives. As the gravel crunches under our feet, I can still hear the beeps of monitors. It’s not work time, its Mum time, but my work now filters through into Mum time. Maybe my daughter sees I’m upset, maybe she is trying to bring me back into the present, as she tugs on my arm requesting a cuddle. She holds me, ‘I love the way you smell Mummy,’ I don’t smell of coco butter, but clearly, I have my own Mum smell. I smile at her, my eyes meeting hers. But inside I’m remembering the sound of a desperate son, a mother unable to smile or talk, her limbs so weak she can not sit up yet unaided. And in my mind, I could smell her coco butter too, and although in reality it doesn’t have a smell, in the literary sense I could smell something like hope. Something positive. In May 2020 I truly believed that if we did the right thing, sticking to the rules, everything would be ok. We would get through this. I stuck to the rules because it was the right thing to do.