My job

Why an NHS COVID swabbing service tempted me out of retirement and back to practice

Retired nurses are bringing knowledge and skills to a complex and essential service

We deliver our swabbing service in often challenging conditions but here is why its worth it

After a 35-year career as a nurse in the NHS, specialising mostly in oncology and haematology, I retired in 2016.

In March last year, I was working as a health and well-being manager in a secondary school, but when the COVID-19 pandemic started, the head agreed to me returning to the NHS to help out.

I had been a senior nurse for many years, and when the trust I had worked for offered nurses who had retired and returned a longer-term role, I returned as a full-time senior sister in the COVID

We deliver our swabbing service in often challenging conditions – but here is why it’s worth it

NHS swabbing service staff are out in all weathers and can face anger among the public Picture: Alamy

After a 35-year career as a nurse in the NHS, specialising mostly in oncology and haematology, I retired in 2016.

In March last year, I was working as a health and well-being manager in a secondary school, but when the COVID-19 pandemic started, the head agreed to me returning to the NHS to help out.

I had been a senior nurse for many years, and when the trust I had worked for offered nurses who had ‘retired and returned’ a longer-term role, I returned as a full-time senior sister in the COVID Swabbing Service.

The service was set up rapidly in spring 2020 to help fight the growing pandemic.

Delivering a COVID-19 swabbing service that is safe

Based in one of the hospital car parks, our clinical areas are temporary pods grouped together under large marquees to create a ‘village’.

We have 22 permanent staff members offering a swabbing service to adults and children before they have elective procedures, and a symptomatic service for staff and members of their households.

‘Over time, we have come to realise there is more to the service than just performing a COVID swab’

We swab most of our patients in their cars, but also offer a walk-in service for paediatric patients and their parents or carers, and staff members who don’t have access to cars. Walk-ins come to the doorway of the pod only, and as we have to do a thorough clean of the area after each patient, we can only offer a limited number of slots each day.

Why our COVID swabbing service is important for patients and staff

The service is vital to the pre-assessment of patients being admitted for elective procedures: without it, operations risk having to be cancelled.

For symptomatic staff, or those working in an outbreak area in the hospital, the service is key to getting people back to work safely and quickly, which is vital when staff are so stretched.

I am one of four members of the team who were senior nurses before retiring. I work with a former associate director of nursing, deputy director of nursing, and matron. Between us, we have more than 150 years of nursing experience, predominantly in the trust where we’re now working.

We bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the service, and if we don’t know something, we always know the person who does. One of my nursing colleagues has developed a competency-based assessment so we can demonstrate accountability – our gold standard for care delivery.

Over time, we have come to realise there is more to the service than just performing a COVID swab.

Understanding the anatomy and physiology of the nasopharyngeal passages, and possible complications of performing a swab, is vital. Without this knowledge, you cannot obtain informed consent from your patients.

Signpost to the swabbing centre at James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough Picture: Alamy

We deal with people’s anger, fear, barking dogs and harsh weather

We have just ten minutes to establish a therapeutic relationship with the patient, which can be challenging. Some are frightened, which can manifest as anger and aggression, so we need to be able to acknowledge these feelings and work with them.

‘For some experiencing loneliness from self-isolation and lockdown, we are the only people they have seen for a long time’

We also often find ourselves explaining procedures to patients, who seem to think we know all their medical history and have vast knowledge of every type of treatment or procedure.

We communicate with people who are blind and deaf, which can be challenging even when you aren’t wearing a face mask. We climb into ambulances – and even cars when necessary, if a person has mobility difficulties – and face screaming children and barking dogs who have come along for the ride.

As we are based in a car park and have taken up parking spaces, some visitors seem to think it’s our fault they can’t park. We receive abuse for this, and as we are outside the hospital, people – including the COVID non-believers – seem to think it’s okay to shout at us for the strangest things.

The weather causes all sorts of problems. Wearing a plastic apron and a visor on a windy day can be interesting, alongside the usual problem we all face of glasses steaming up. The wind makes the pod shake, and the noise makes you think the whole lot will come down any minute.

On top of that, there are the helicopters, which make the pods shake and rattle when they take off or land nearby, and we recently had the fire brigade in to pump out floods. The winter cold means we have to wear thermal underwear and fleeces, and when the pipes become frozen, we have difficulty washing our hands.

Why I’m glad to be back in the NHS

I never thought my nursing job description would include car parks, frozen pipes, full waste tanks, flooding and broken-down cars, but I am glad I returned to the NHS at this extremely difficult time.

We swab all types of patients, including those with life-limiting illnesses, facial tumours, nasogastric tubes, learning disabilities and dementia.

We also see people with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and for those experiencing loneliness from self-isolation and lockdown, sometimes we are the only people they have seen for a long time.

All in all, we offer more than just a COVID swab.


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