Monday, 15 November 2021

COVID Chronicles

Have you ever fallen asleep on a wintery afternoon and woken up in darkness, unsure if it’s morning or midnight? That’s my life currently; discombobulated and perplexing. 

I have an unusual job. I’m a specialist palliative care nurse. I see patients in hospital who have life limiting illnesses like cancer, heart failure or dementia and assess their needs, talking through how they’re feeling, advising staff how to manage their symptoms and liaising with their relatives. Some of them are imminently dying but by no means all of them. Some of them are having active treatments like chemotherapy to manage their conditions and will live for weeks, months and even years. 

 Overnight my role has changed but it’s also the same. I’m now spending most of my time with people who have COVID19 and are dying from this. The familiar wards are no more. Neurology is a COVID19 ward. Haematology and orthopaedics and more: all the same. Instead of long conversations by the bedside and direct chats with their visitors, I’m now dressed in a mask and visor, leaning over the beds of people who are mostly semi-conscious. Instead of complex issues with pain or nausea, with their aspirations and concerns, my main worry is now breathlessness and agitation, with sedatives and opioids being the main weapons of choice to fight this. 

They’re anonymous strangers in corporate nightwear, often with no belongings other than the clothes they were wearing when they were loaded into an ambulance. They have no one coming in, unless they’re in their last few days when they are allowed one visitor. I don’t quite know what to do but conversely am familiar with this. The people are mostly the same people we would often meet, people with end stage illnesses who would not survive the trauma of ventilation on ITU. 

Decades of nursing have left me undaunted and I know I can do this. I’m used to death and I know how to manage the process, how to soothe and minimise suffering even with new parameters and different ways of working. 

There are flashes of light that I carry with me. A Speech Therapist, drafted into unfamiliar territory, caring for someone who was dying with competence and compassion, an elderly woman with advanced cancer who pulled through. 

I dislike the phrase ‘the new normal’. I refuse to accept this and to me, this is ‘the new temporary’. 

 Picture: Hurricane Nurse by Richard Prince 

 This was a piece I wrote and read out on BBC4 in May 2020: COVID Chronicles

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