Vogue- Im an Intensive Care Doctor currently working in a hospital in south London. Its difficult to sum up how Im feeling currently, and I suspect that I will look back upon these times with a slightly different eye, so apologies to “future me” if the following account seems over-emotional at times.
The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) where I work has quadrupled in size over the past month and continues to grow. Most patients being admitted are younger than what we are used to (probably averaging in their late 50s) and most patients were pretty healthy before this all started. Most do “have underlying health conditions” – that line that now features in nearly all announcements about Covid-19, and is a statement that myself, and my colleagues, are tired of hearing. The reality is: large swathes of society have health problems, our family members have health problems, and the poorest in society are on the whole in worse health. The idea held by my own, younger, generation that we are invincible is reckless and upsetting.
On with my day. The night team hand over events from their shift, we allocate jobs for the day and, importantly, caffeinate. We wear PPE (technically one “dons” PPE, and given that this is Vogue, I feel one must take note of the dress particulars) and sweat unholy amounts as we review patients. Some get better, some dont, and many die. Covid-19 is a cruel illness that means no matter what we throw at some people – our finest drugs; our best ventilators; incredible minds – its sadly not enough for some.
On that note, Id say we are a pretty resilient profession on the whole, but seeing fellow nurses, porters, cleaners and doctors passing away as an effect of this virus really hits home. The fear for ourselves is shadowed by the fears for our family and loved ones. The thing that upsets me most, and gives me the most anxiety, is the thought of infecting those around me.
The afternoon brings, in my opinion, one of the hardest parts of the day: speaking to patients relatives. For obvious reasons we are currently unable to allow relatives to visit their loved ones in hospital. This therefore means that lots of the difficult conversations have to occur over the phone. Telling someones wife that their husband is probably not going to make it, that they cannot have a funeral, that they cannot come to visit – all over the phone – is something I find very hard. Itll probably be these phone calls that I will remember in years to come.
Im aware Im painting a bleak old picture here, so its time to list some positives. Im truly grateful that I get to leave the house and feel that I am contributing in a positive way. My seniors have been immensely supportive of us younger members of the team, and morale is mostly high. I work as a small part in an inspiring set-up and have forged friendships that I am likely to maintain for life. The public support has been heart-warming (even a cynic like me struggles not to tear up during our weekly Thursday night applause). The generosity of the public continues to bring us joy (NHS canteen food simply wont cut it when this is done, given the charity of local restaurants). In a couple of months, when we all hope that the worst will have passed and we adjust to a slightly different life, I hope we wont forget this passion we now feel for the NHS.
I briefly mentioned nurses above, and I honestly cant say enough about how wonderful they are. Caring, resilient and often with a wicked sense of humour, the nurses of Emergency Departments and Intensive Care Units will forever be my heroes. These are the guys wearing polythene suits for 13 hours a day, providing the most loving of human faces (albeit through a visor) for terrified patients, all working with an unquestionable commitment to our NHS. In my hospital I would estimate around three quarters of these nurses are foreign nationals, largely of BAME background. I would love to see the legacy of this horror being that we finally recognise the importance that these remarkable people have in our society.
This crisis is far from over and we, as doctors, are well aware of that. I worry about the long-term effects of the pandemic on colleagues and myself. As a profession, we thrive under pressure, and I am inspired on a daily basis by those around me. But this is so different to anything that we (including doctors now approaching retirement) have ever faced in our lifetimes.
So, what advice can I give to Vogue readers? I encourage you all to check in on those friends working in frontline services, of which the NHS makes up only one part. Have dinner over Zoom (however awkward); forward those terrible memes from your dad (I secretly love them); and plan the wildest party imaginable for when this is over. Making plans for the future really helps. Secondly – and weve heard this one before – please stay at home. The people I am seeing in ICU are relatable to us all. Nobody is invincible.