Accompanying Health Care Workers in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic
8-10 June 2021
Kathryn Hewitt, an Advanced Nurse Practitioner at The Queen Elisabeth Hospital in Birmingham has shared her experiences fighting COVID-19 – and those of her colleagues on the frontline – with attendees of a virtual conference organised by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
The series of five webinars examines the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s healthcare workers. The pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on hospitals and care homes and staff have taken on long, heavy shifts that have taken a major toll on their physical and psychological well-being.
Kathryn Hewitt, who was redeployed to her hospital’s Intensive Care Unit when the pandemic struck the UK in 2020, spoke on Tuesday 8 June – the first of three days of webinars. The morning’s sub theme was Experience, needs and challenges during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
In early 2020, the UK was introduced to a deadly virus, continually pushing the National Health Service (NHS) and its workers to unimaginable limits. To date, over 460,000 people have been hospitalised with COVID-19 in the UK, placing NHS workers in unfamiliar and scary situations. Although this presentation is on the experiences of nurses in the UK, we recognise the huge multidisciplinary efforts of every member of the team, from consultants to cleaners; united to face the greatest threat to mankind in our life-time.
We are incredibly fortunate in the UK that we have the care of the NHS to fall back on and are incredibly grateful that despite the catastrophic financial burden and loss of jobs due to the pandemic; we are safe in the knowledge that if we were unfortunate enough to need healthcare and support, the NHS is there for everyone, no matter their social or economic status.
My experience of the COVID pandemic was of redeployment to the Intensive Care Unit, however for the purpose of this talk I have reached out to colleagues working in other areas of the NHS to be able to capture and portray a universal experience of nursing in the UK in the pandemic.
In the NHS, in normal times, the emphasis is on providing ‘Gold Standard’ care for its patients, however, in this climate of pandemic, staff have been humbled by providing a basic but life-preserving standard of care. In response to the growing pandemic, my team, like many around the country, were challenged with being redeployed to the COVID-19 frontline, Intensive Care Unit workforce. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham boasts the largest Intensive Care Unit in Europe with the ability to care for 130 COVID patients in the peak, decanting patients from sister hospitals in the area. To cope with this large influx of patients, extra capacity was created within the Intensive Care Unit, doubling the amount of available beds, allowing for the surge of patients arriving at the front door. In order to cope with this increase in capacity and to allow for inevitable staff sickness, a repurposed workforce was created pulling staff from all areas within the hospital to work on the frontline.
Those redeployed were of varying experience, some being fully qualified Intensive Care nurses, some having prior but limited Intensive Care experience and others with no Intensive Care experience at all. The whole experience of redeployment for any nurse is daunting; whether a newly qualified nurse stunned like a deer in headlights or an experienced nurse taken out of their comfort zone, from expert to novice. Simple things such as learning to ‘don’ into the Personal Protective Equipment was as if preparing for war. Despite this, morale was high, we were all in it together. Walking on to the Intensive Care Unit the first time was intimidating, exhilarating, exciting and scary all at the same time. Patients were doubled in each bed space; two beds, two patients, two ventilators and multiple infusion pumps. It was immediately clear this was going to be a challenge like none before.
Redeployment to new areas and working with new teams, although scary and a definite test of professional resilience, has opened the door to new conversations, new opinions and new opportunities for modern-day evangelisation. As a healthcare professional, you were seeing, living and working this crisis and nobody knew how to deal with it. Our patients and their relatives depended on us to supply them updates and share our knowledge, but we couldn’t because we didn’t have that knowledge to share. These challenges created conversation of faith and caused nurses to open up and trust and support each other.
The pandemic has emphasised that a career in healthcare is much more than a job and has highlighted the importance of holism on a human level. Nurses have had to not only act as the professional, preserving life, but have also had to take on the role of friends and family to patients unable to see their own. To be the cheerful, familiar face beneath layers of PPE, the optimist when in need of a lift, the cheerleader when rehabilitating, the shoulder to cry on when things are hard and the hand to hold when they can fight no more.
As healthcare professionals, when faced with life and death we must psychologically prepare ourselves for the upcoming inevitable event, this helps us protect ourselves. COVID’s unpredictability of who it may affect, and who will not survive, presents an emotional challenge. It was hard to foresee who would survive from one day to the next, therefore preventing staff from being able to properly prepare and often gave very little time to recover before the next devastating loss. To look around at the world and see such suffering, you feel helpless and powerless to help. Here, once again we look to something bigger than ourselves, we look to God and rely on our faith to help us through.
Providing end of life care is one of the hardest parts of any nurse’s job, but doing this at a distance, over the phone or supporting families as they see their loved ones for the first time at the point of end of life, after weeks apart, is incredibly hard. Despite this, the provision of holistic care for patients, encompassing their faith and beliefs at the end of life, has been one of the greatest privileges of working on the front line throughout the pandemic. Communicating with family and friends to ensure their needs are met as well as they can be by utilising prayer, music and meditation to help patients and relatives through their darkest moments.
It did not take long until we felt the enormity of this pandemic, and our vulnerable mortality as nurses and healthcare workers. After some time we began to see sick NHS workers appearing in the intensive care unit, our colleagues and people we stood shoulder to shoulder with at the start of this pandemic. It is estimated that over 850 healthcare workers have died of COVID in the UK, there are no words to describe the feelings of witnessing this suffering of people just like ourselves, who have been unfortunate in contracting this virus through helping others. Being involved or surrounded by this will undoubtedly affect and change a person. A recent study I read showed that 72% of healthcare workers now experience a form of post-traumatic stress disorder from their experiences of the COVID pandemic and this is something that needs addressing through pastoral and peer support. God is speaking through each and every one of us to not only provide support for patients and their families, but to support each other; a lesson healthcare-workers will undoubtedly take forward in their continuing practice.
The effects of the COVID pandemic continue even now. Although we are fortunate in the UK to have things better controlled, we are now presented with hundreds of sick patients whose operations or treatment have been postponed or patients who were too scared to attend the hospitals and seek help. They are patients much sicker than we are used to treating and many people will still lose their lives secondary to the COVID pandemic.
In healthcare, watching such suffering, we are no stranger to faith’s tough questions. As nurses we are taught to use reflection to help process a difficult or challenging situation, which takes time and can’t be rushed. Nurses are also taught get on with the job, you lay someone to rest in one room, take a moment, then move on to the next patient with a smile on your face, the reflection occurs later, on your drive home, or with a loved one and can take some time. The inability to take time following each tragedy during the pandemic means that nurses may be unable to reflect on and process all the events experienced without help.
In my experience, when everyone is turning to you, and you have no one to turn to yourself; you turn to God and pray for his guidance and support. Pray for strength and energy to continue and patience with yourself and others in such a highly stressful environment.
There are no specific words to say or things to be done that can ‘fix’ the situation for frontline workers around the world. However, the benefit of kind words and prayers of support and encouragement to get back out there and keep going is underestimated and highly valued.
On discussing with colleagues, I identified variations in current pastoral support offered. In areas more accustomed to tragedy and suffering, such as the hospice setting, there was a high pastoral presence with the offer of one-to-one meetings and group support and prayer groups with the offer to discuss faith and help work through questions that may be occurring. In other areas there were no offers of help or support unless you actively went looking for it, which presents its own challenges as healthcare workers are not given time to seek such help and support when at work. I believe that a personal and visible pastoral presence in the workplace is very much valued. A presence so that healthcare professionals just know the support is there if they need it.
I believe, in this still very acute stage, parish priests should endeavour to actively reach out to their parishioners they know are healthcare workers and offer the opportunity to talk and listen. To provide priests with the skills to help and listen to those experiencing difficulties processing all that happened within the pandemic and the challenges faced in its aftermath would feel incredibly supportive.
It might be that someone is struggling a lot but doesn’t feel they can actually talk to someone about it. Providing access to support networks, forums and utilising platforms such as podcasts where people who maybe don’t feel ready to talk can listen to others share and process their experiences could be a really valuable venture that the church could explore.
Kathryn Hewitt is pictured, left, at the Marian shrine of Lourdes in France.