What we do is positive – it’s caring, it’s empathy, it’s for the greater good

A doctor in NHS uniform smiles

Anaesthetic practitioner, intensive care unit

As part of the Our Frontline campaign to support the mental health of all those out working to protect us during the coronavirus crisis, we’ll be regularly sharing stories, tips and other thoughts about what life is like for them at the moment, in their own words.

Here, an anaesthetic practitioner talks about the strains and heartbreak of working in an intensive care unit during the pandemic, the experiences he shares with all healthcare workers, and what helps him to cope.

I have been an anaesthetic practitioner for nearly 20 years. My primary role is to work with anaesthetists in the operating theatre, but my role also extends to other areas of the hospital where anaesthetic intervention is needed, such as accident and emergency and acute patient transfers. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how hospitals prioritise patient care and many staff have been redeployed to help with the treatment and care of COVID patients. My transferable skills meant I was redeployed to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

A doctor wearing a respiratory mask, plastic face shield, and surgical overallsWorking long shifts in the ICU presents many challenges both mentally and physically. Wearing a hood and gown for long periods of time becomes hot and claustrophobic and makes communication difficult. We have our photo on the outside of our hoods so that patients can see who we are and we try to make as much human contact with them as possible. Patients are often scared and when the decision is made to put them on a ventilator, some call loved ones on their video phones to say goodbye, sometimes for the last time. It’s heartbreaking to witness this level of human grief and suffering.

As frontline workers, we carry the scale of suffering, the isolation and loneliness the patients endure and the fear in their eyes with us. The burden of guilt and helplessness seeing and knowing patients are suffering and dying alone. For one shift this would be unbearable, but we come back day after day, week after week.

The support we have felt from the general public has been a big lift for us all

The support we have felt from the general public has been a big lift for us all. The recognition, gifts and messages of support have lifted our spirits and I feel a sense of pride. For the first time in my career, I feel connected to healthcare professionals around the world, united in a shared experience. With the help of social media, we are family, listening and supporting each other, all together in the common goal of treating and caring for patients with COVID-19.

Talking about my day to colleagues and my partner has been the primary way of downloading my emotions. It’s been important to me to process my feelings – to be angry, sad, to cry, and just as importantly, think of the positives. What we do IS positive: it’s caring, it’s empathy, it’s for the greater good. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that.

Knowing there is a beautiful word outside - this is therapy

Running and exercise has been a huge help. Zoning out on a run, listening to the birds and feeling the wind on my face. Engaging my senses and knowing there is a beautiful word outside. This is therapy.

My daughter is nearly four and is my perfect distraction. When the most important thing in her and my world is doing dinosaur impressions, making mud castles and watching Peter Rabbit and Peppa Pig, all is well in the world. I am grateful for my little world and whatever happens, I’ll always have that to turn to. It’s the most perfect, beautiful distraction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put mental health at the top of the agenda for staff wellbeing

We are also supported by our hospital well-being and psychological services, which have become 24-hour with walk-in clinics available. The COVID-19 pandemic has put mental health at the top of the agenda for staff wellbeing and accelerated funding for services in the NHS, which is a huge positive for both the short and long-term effects of COVID-19 on frontline workers.

It is so important for frontline workers to have access to many channels of mental health support to cater for the needs of as many of us as possible and I would encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out for the support they deserve.

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