(A tribute to a woman I never knew: I have wanted to write this to her for a long time. I often think of her still – written Jan 2022)
In April 2020 the world was hiding behind closed doors. The roads were empty, school playgrounds and parks deserted and silent. A fear had engulfed us all. A wave of uncertainty washed over even the most resilient and strongest of people. We were in the midst of Covid 19.
A woman died (so did many), I didn’t know her, I’d never met her but her face was all over social media. She was a nurse, a community nurse, isolating alone because she had had covid. At the time I had joined lots of social-media healthcare professional groups about Covid. People sharing stories into the anonymity of the internet, many unable to have these conversations or share these experiences with their own loved ones. In time I had to withdraw from these groups, my life was already saturated with the heartache of covid. I didn’t want to hear anymore horror stories when I was living through my own. But one story stood out, one post which really affected me, even now almost 2 years later I still think of it.
A community nurse had died in Tyneside. Her sister had shared her recent face-book posts up for all to see. The nurse had documented her covid journey, even the moments before the ambulance came to take her away. She had written how covid felt, what was happening to her body. She wrote with humour, small extracts of her initial illness. She described her temperature, her loss of taste the weight of her body under the virus. But then things turned sinister, she went to hospital but was soon discharged. She describes how a Dr told her that ‘her lungs were full of Covid’ She was later sent home. Her thread then tells us how she was having nosebleeds, temperatures of 39, and how she could hardly breathe. I can’t recall her final update, but I believe she wrote that she was going back to hospital, and then next, her sister updates her social media telling us that she had sadly died.
I only started reading the thread once I’d heard of her death, I had no other reason to be on her Facebook account, after all I didn’t know her. I’d followed a link when reading a tribute to her. But still that final message announcing her death made me cry and cry. I cried secretly for days, I thought of her often, this woman I had never met. Why did her story touch me so much?, why I had started reading about her?, looking for her online, desperate to hear about her life. I honestly don’t know. I honestly don’t know why I had become so fascinated with her and her story. Maybe it was because it could have been anyone of my colleagues that had died, maybe it was because sometimes all the amazing and wonderful things that people do don’t get celebrated until their death? My colleagues and I were fighting the covid battle every day, we were fighting against this invisible enemy this unknown entity. And here was one of us, one of our allies who had fallen. This woman who lived alone, who recently lost her own father to Covid, who spent hours in PPE caring for others to then be struck, to be killed. Killed by this evil beast that me and my colleagues thousands of miles away were still trying to tame.
Her face all over social media, the national and her local newspapers could have been mine, could have been any of my close friends or close colleagues, forever glorified in death. I think of the famous war poem by Wilfred Owen, and his final line, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’. This translates to ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.’ Owen describes this as a lie, there is indeed nothing sweet about death, even when it turns you into a hero forever.
But us in health care, we’re not soldiers, we never signed up to fight, to potentially die, to be immortalised as heroes. We never signed up to face the possibility of death each shift. We are trained to protect, prolong and preserve life, and I can’t imagine that any of us would have willingly trained in our professions if we knew that there would become an expectation that we could die from doing our jobs.
The nurse in Tyneside died doing a job she loved. But do any us love out jobs enough to die for them? Most of us do indeed love our health care jobs, but is that enough for a death to be justified, to be glorified? Was enough really done at the start of the pandemic to ensure we kept our healthcare staff safe? Sadly, I’m not sure it always was.
According to a recent article in The Independent 5,952 health care staff have died (uk) since the start of the pandemic. 5952 immortalised heroes, names on benches or on plagues in hospitals/healthcare setting walls, names now only spoken by the loved one’s closet to them. People who have become photos in frames, memories changed and distorted over time, voices that have faded to less than whispers. And again, I think of the sweet lie ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’.
Here is my small tribute to a woman I never knew. And to the 5951 other healthcare professionals we have lost, whom thankfully I never knew either. Thank you, for all you have given and for all you have done. RIP.