NHS workers reveal impact of coronavirus frontline on their mental health
ACCORDING to the British Medical Association, nearly half of UK doctors are suffering from burnout, depression or anxiety thanks to the pandemic.
As fears of a second wave grow, we speak to three NHS workers about the impact their work has had on their mental health.
‘It was like being sent into a war zone with a butter knife’
Dr Meenal Viz, 27, works in A&E and oncology in a London hospital. She lives in Luton with husband Nishant, 32, also a doctor, and their nine-week-old daughter Radhika.
"Sitting on the sofa in March, I froze with fear as Boris Johnson announced pregnant women should shield at home as the UK was placed in lockdown.
"I was 24 weeks pregnant, so classed as ‘vulnerable’, but I was due at work in a busy A&E department the next day. Cradling my bump, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help, but was I risking my safety – and my baby’s life?
"I did go in, of course. I couldn’t let my patients and colleagues down. But I was filled with panic. It wasn’t clear what protective equipment we should be wearing and I had to hunt for a surgical mask to attend suspected Covid patients.
"I felt like I was in the line of fire – and managers expected us to get on with it. After three weeks, my stress levels were so high, my GP signed me off sick. I was struggling to sleep and consumed by thoughts of getting ill.
"After a week at home, I returned to work on an oncology ward. The placement had been planned pre-Covid, but I didn’t feel safer.
I’d sit with a patient in a closed room without knowing if either of us had the virus
"Some days, I only had a plastic apron for protection. I’d sit with a patient in a closed room without knowing if either of us had the virus.
"In April, 28-year-old Mary Agyapong, a nurse from Luton, died of Covid five days after giving birth. My husband Nishant worked at the hospital where Mary died and when he told me, I couldn’t stop crying. It could easily have been me.
"I didn’t want Mary’s death to be swept under the carpet. So on April 19, I staged a one-woman protest outside 10 Downing Street, calling for better protection for healthcare workers.
"In early May, I was finally given permission to work from home, carrying out research for cancer patients. It was a huge relief, but I couldn’t forget my colleagues who were still frightened and trying to help people.
"In June, when I was 35 weeks pregnant, I asked one of Nishant’s colleagues to put me in touch with Mary’s husband Ernest, then I visited him and his three children. As I gazed at the baby, also named Mary, it made me want to help them find justice.
"On July 12, a group of health workers and I filed a judicial review to the High Court, challenging the government on its lack of guidance and PPE. It’s still waiting for review, but it’s helped channel my anger and frustration.
"The days leading up to my planned C-section were full of worry – I was due to give birth at the same hospital where Mary died.
"Radhika was born on July 14, weighing a healthy 7lb 5oz. Holding my daughter, I felt so relieved, but also fearful. I just wanted to get her home and keep her safe.
The trauma of working through a pandemic wasn’t something we were taught at medical school
"Maternity leave has been a blessing for me – a chance to process the craziness – but other colleagues aren’t so lucky.
"The trauma of working through a pandemic wasn’t something we were taught at medical school. It’s like they sent us into a war zone with a butter knife.
"I believe a second wave will hit, and the government needs to listen to doctors more. And I will make sure my voice is heard.”
The Palliative Care Nurse
‘I’ve seen this virus tear lives apart’
Sagila Thiruthanikasalan, 35, is a nursing associate at a London hospital and lives in west London.
“I’ve worked in A&E for 10 years, but nothing could have prepared me for the past five months working in palliative care on a Covid ward, giving seriously ill patients the best care to improve their quality of life.
“I’ve seen this virus tear lives apart. I’ve been by people’s sides when they’ve taken their last breath, as their family weren’t allowed to be with them.
“One patient had no phone or iPad to contact people on, and I wasn’t allowed to let him use mine. I stuck to the rules, but I regret it. The guilt that he died without being able to say goodbye haunts me.
“I stay professional, but it’s impossible not to be affected. Some days I feel fine, the next someone will be admitted with Covid symptoms and I’ll feel a familiar sense of panic, flashing back to the darkest days of the pandemic.
“I caught Covid myself in mid-March after dealing with infected patients who had recently returned from Covid-confirmed countries but had failed to inform us.
Being around friends helped as we could talk to someone we knew understood
"I only had a mild case, with a cough, headaches and aching muscles, which was fortunate as I suffer from asthma and am in a high-risk ethnic group.
“I had already moved out of the home I shared with a friend and her baby, for their protection, and spent two weeks isolated in a part of my parents’ house.
"Then, in early April, I moved into a rental property, which was being offered to keyworkers for free, along with two colleagues.
“Being around friends helped as we could unwind with a glass of wine and talk to someone we knew understood.
“I have colleagues who, like me, are still suffering from the trauma. Some have symptoms of PTSD but have carried on working, others are on antidepressants and have nightmares triggered by the deaths they’ve witnessed.
“One who lost six patients in one shift has been left with insomnia, while a doctor friend who used to be so cheerful is now very withdrawn. Seeing them so broken is very disturbing.
“I’d been suffering from stresspre-pandemic and was able to continue my weekly counselling sessions by phone.
“They were a chance to offload emotions and clear my head, so I felt strong enough to give my patients the best care. Without them, I dread to think what state my mental health would be in.
I’m a tactile person and have really missed that
“Recently I saw my best friend and her children for the first time in seven months. Because I hadn’t cared for a Covid patient for the previous seven days and was no longer working on a Covid ward, I decided to bubble with them.
“It meant I was able to cuddle them, which was wonderful. I’m a tactile person and have really missed that.
“I’ve been asked to move out of the rental now and I’ll be moving back with my friend. I’ll really miss my colleagues, as I don’t think I would have got through this without them. They understood what I was going through in a way nobody else could.”
‘The thought of another lockdown fills me with fear’
Kira Lewis-McGarty, 29, is a paramedic and lives in Essex with her wife Patricia, 31, an A&E nurse, and their 16-month-old son Henry.
“Looking at the gravely ill woman wearing an oxygen mask, I struggled to keep my emotions in check. She was around the same age as my mum and my heart broke for her and her family.
“The pandemic was at its peak in April, when I was transferring her for special ventilation treatment, and it was one of the most challenging periods of my entire life.
“Even in normal times, being a paramedic is demanding. I come across everything from fires and murders to vulnerable children. During the pandemic, however, it was even worse.
“I felt there was a lot of pressure to make the right decision when it came to taking people to hospital, with around 90% of my call-outs that month being suspected Covid cases.
“We were consulting with GPs about who needed to be admitted, but I felt a heightened sense of responsibility I hadn’t been trained for, especially as the guidelines about Covid symptoms were changing constantly in the early weeks.
It was really difficult to see their pain and fear
“I was fortunate to have the correct PPE, which helped keep me protected and safe. We’d generally wear a surgical mask, apron and gloves on top of our uniform, and change our mask for every call out.
“But if we were attending a cardiac arrest that could have been caused by Covid or confirmed Covid patient, we’d wear a full suit, an FFP3 mask and goggles.
“Wheeling a seriously ill patient into the ambulance, I’d look back at their partner or family who weren’t allowed to accompany them. They didn’t know if they’d ever see their loved one again and it was really difficult to see their pain and fear.
“My wife Patricia finished her maternity leave in April, and returned to work part-time as an A&E nurse, so we were both in the thick of the virus.
The risk of contamination was always on my mind
"After our son’s nursery closed, we bubbled with my mother-in-law to help with childcare.
“Patricia and I were very anxious about bringing the virus home. As soon as I came through the door, I’d strip off my uniform and put it in a 60°C wash, then have a shower.
“If I’d been on the Covid ward in the hospital, I’d shower and change before coming home.
“The risk of contamination was always on my mind and it was draining, but I was also living with the knowledge that other NHS workers were dying.
“I look back on the peak weeks of the pandemic and thinkhow exhausted I was, both physically and mentally, worn down by long hours and stress.
“Patricia was a huge support – if I wanted to get something off my chest, she understood, and vice versa. But I have colleagues who didn’t have that, and had to bottle up all the pressure and fear. There are long waiting lists to access support now.
“The thought of another lockdown fills me with fear. I love my job, but there’s no way I could go through the extreme fatigue and being constantly afraid for my life, and the life of my family, again.”
Why we need care for our carers
A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan, also a Labour MP, is campaigning for a mental health support service, Care for Carers, for all health and care staff.
It would give 3 million workers access to a fast-track support system. The shocking stats below explain why such a system is needed:
60% of healthcare workers surveyed by the Royal College of Surgeons have felt depressed or hopeless during the pandemic, and 80% have had difficulty sleeping.
51% of doctors don’t feel supported by the government, or confident everything possible is being done to help them keep patients safe.*
Just under half of NHS health workers said they worried about their family’s safety due to a lack of PPE for NHS workers.**
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