(Picture: Getty Images)

I’ll never forget treating a young gentleman with Covid while I was working in the critical care unit at my hospital. He was in his thirties.

When he arrived at the hospital, he spoke to his wife on the phone and told her he loved her – and we began treatment, providing medication and placing him on a ventilator.

However, like many Covid patients, he wasn’t responding how we would usually expect. When I came back onto shift 24 hours later, he was no longer there.

That was a real shock.

I’ve worked at the Royal Bolton Hospital for over 18 years, predominantly as an operating department practitioner — but I was redeployed to the hospital’s critical care unit to support colleagues with the high numbers of seriously unwell Covid patients during the pandemic.

Our role in critical care varied from day-to-day, and we quickly had to get to grips with new equipment in uncharted territory.

Our machines were not generally intended for long-term ventilation, only for short-term surgeries — so this caused a lot of anxiety for anaesthetic practitioners, and also for critical care staff who don’t usually use these machines.

We were trying to cover emergency theatre services and maternity wards, and also aid people who were having emergencies that we’d usually expect, such as appendicectomies, emergency C-sections and so on.

All of this was alongside adjusting to a new rota to provide care for Covid patients on ventilators in a controlled environment to minimise risk to everyone.

I had to put on layers of PPE when every second counted (Picture: Neal Ashurst)

The amount of death we witnessed left a lasting impression. I had 16 years of experience, yet it was still overwhelming — in my usual role, it’s unusual to see patients die, and sometimes it left me with a feeling of hopelessness in what I was doing clinically.

I also really worried for newly qualified colleagues and how this affected them. 

On one occasion — the most traumatic for me — I was called onto a ward to a patient experiencing cardiac arrest.

I had to put on layers of PPE when every second counted, and the pressure to get it on was almost too much. 

Unfortunately, the patient tragically passed away, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What if things were different? I didn’t have time to take stock though as five minutes later, I had to move straight onto another emergency. There was no time to debrief. 

It tipped me over the edge. I was physically tired and mentally drained. I felt so responsible for the care of all my patients, and my team who were asking questions that I didn’t know the answer to. It was immense pressure, and it changes you.

For about 10 days afterwards, I tried to carry on. But I got to the point where I wasn’t mentally present, I couldn’t even remember the journey into work.

When I was at home, I couldn’t even get dressed

I spoke to my manager and was told to go home to rest, but the sense of responsibility stopped me. Then I drove into work the next day, and I thought ‘I can’t do this’.

I was thinking of what was waiting for me on the wards, the pressure of how many questions would be asked and doubting whether I could answer them, all the while fearing whether we could keep staff and patients safe with the sheer workload we were experiencing. 

I had to turn back, without knowing when I’d return.

I reached out to my GP and my manager to see what services were available. My GP suggested counselling, and my managers wanted me to take time out to recover, as well as looking into what additional help they could provide, such as support from NHS Charities Together.

There’s a stigma — especially for men in their 40s — around seeking counselling, but you have to reach out for help.

I hit rock bottom. When I was at home, I couldn’t even get dressed. My wife, an anaesthetist, was supportive but had to go into work too. I couldn’t sleep – I paced around like a caged lion and was exhausted all day. I’d given my all to my job and desperately wanted to recover. I didn’t want to be beaten by the job I love so much.

With the support of counselling and the Caring for Yourself programme provided by NHS Charities Together and the Trust charity, which provided me with wellbeing exercises and tools, I returned to work on a staggered basis after four months.

I’m enjoying my role again — although it’s been life changing and I still suffer some PTSD symptoms. My biggest issue is struggling to cope with high levels of background noise. It’s very difficult to filter out things like machines beeping and background conversations, and I can find it triggering.  

I’ve seen colleagues move away from clinical roles, which is a real shame. I speak to a lot of colleagues as an advocate for the support available by the Trust, and I don’t think some people will ever fully recover from the trauma and what they have seen and experienced. Many won’t know how to deal with the flashbacks.

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I’ve had so many colleagues say to me how they are struggling — and some of these are our most experienced staff. 

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have additional support, and a space amongst peers to share feelings, emotions, and experiences. Having rest spaces to have a quiet moment and reflect is hugely beneficial too.

I encourage all of my colleagues to reach out, and not to struggle on their own. Don’t discount any form of support, always talk to somebody. These staff members take care of people everyday, but they need to care for themselves too.

NHS Charities Together is inviting everyone to support NHS staff mental health and wellbeing, as well as vital community health projects, by joining the NHS Big Tea on Tuesday 5th July. To sign up and host your own NHS Big Tea event please visit www.nhsbigtea.co.uk

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