Reflecting on two years of the worst pandemic in nurses’ lifetime

Nurses share experiences of the first waves two years after WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic

On the two-year anniversary since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, nurses share their experiences of the first wave

Jill Kirk and Karen Colbeck-Rowe consoling each other after a gruelling 12-hour shift on a COVID critical care unit
Jill Kirk and Karen Colbeck-Rowe consoling each other after a gruelling 12-hour shift on a COVID critical care unit. Picture: Holly Beacroft

It’s been two years since the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, as cases of COVID-19 spread across the globe at an unparalleled pace.

Less than two weeks later, the UK would be in its first lockdown, lasting four months. Since then, the UK has recorded 19.4 million cases and 184,400 deaths related to COVID-19.

Nurses on the front line had to navigate through unchartered territory, doing their best to treat patients and save lives, in a health crisis not seen before in living memory.

Two years on, nurses from all aspects of care have shared their experience and reflections on working through those first waves and what lasting mark it has left on them as a nurse.

Andy, psychiatric nurse in an acute adult mental health ward

‘On our ward most of us had COVID before we even knew what it was called,’ said Andy, who worked in an adult mental health ward in the north west of England.

Testing mental health patients for COVID was distressing Picture: iStock

‘We had to start testing patients, but they didn’t give us any training and just had us stick a prodder up the patients’ noses. I refused to do this because there had always been training in the past for everything else. It was invasive and distressing for people.’

Andy said it often felt like mental health wards and patients were forgotten about and just left to cope on their own.

He added: ‘Patients had to isolate until their negative result came back – imagine telling a paranoid patient they had to isolate in their tiny room for up to 48 hours. It didn’t go down well, and never happened.

‘Often newly admitted aggressive patients would spit at you and say they had COVID-19 so that you wouldn’t go near them, which upset some of my colleagues.’

Fliss, cardiac ITU nurse and critical care infection nurse

‘The hardest part for me was the constant slog of work,’ said Fliss, who moved to a position as a critical care infection specialist nurse in April 2021.

‘My partner isn't medical, so he didn't feel comfortable hearing the stories I had from work. I didn't want to worry my mum (a retired nurse), so I kept a lot of it bottled up.

‘I'm not one of those people with a close-knit group of work friends, so I felt alone in my experiences.’

‘The hardest part for me was the constant slog of work. I didn’t want to worry my mum, who’s a retired nurse, so I kept a lot of it bottled up’

She said that two COVID-19 patients stood out for her both of whom she still thinks about to this day and wonders what happened to them.

‘Stand out memories are sitting with a patient after transferring him to the ward from ITU after months of almost dying. He told me how he was taking early retirement from work and he was going to take his partner away to Venice and propose,’ she told Nursing Standard.

‘There was another patient who wouldn't let go of my hand as he was re-sedated due to bleeding into his tracheotomy. He was crying and squeezing my hand so hard. All I could do was tell him that it was going to be okay.

‘A few months later his wife was able to send us a photo of him in his wheelchair at the rehab centre and he looked so healthy. Those patients stick in my mind and I wish I knew how they were now.’

Peter Jones, advanced nurse practitioner in general practice

Peter Jones, advanced nurse practitioner

Mr Jones said: ‘My overwhelming memory is of one lady whom I still think about regularly. The first lockdown was protracted and demoralising.

‘I visited a lady in her flat for the first time and discovered that I was the first human she’d seen face-to-face in 12 weeks. And this human was armoured in the PPE of gloves, a plastic pinny, mask and visor.

‘I knew from her notes that she was at an advanced stage of her disease process. She spoke to her family regularly, but due to her vulnerability they stayed away. She had food brought to and taken from her door, but carers also avoided close contact for her safety.

‘We talked about her gorgeous view from her flat and we shared pictures of our cats. She died soon after I left. I’m proud of the care that I gave that day and her memory has stayed with me as the tragedy of the isolation of the lockdown.’

‘We talked about her gorgeous view from her flat and we shared pictures of our cats. She died soon after I left. I’m proud of the care I gave that day, and her memory has stayed with me as the tragedy of the isolation of the lockdown’

Mr Jones recalled the sheer speed that the pandemic tore through the country.

‘I worked agency shifts at a local COVID-19 hub for the experience and learning. One week I tested a total of three people in an eight-hour shift. Two weeks later the hub was no longer being used as A&E was overwhelmed with COVID-positive patients,’ he said.

‘I don’t think anyone at any level was prepared for this influx and the hospital changes needed. And then there’s working outside, including the phlebotomy clinics in the British weather.

‘We did our best, but it was often an insurmountable challenge as our aprons blew up into our faces and kit was sent skidding across the car park.’

Rebecca, nursing student training in the south of England during the first wave

Deployment to the emergency department during the first wave Picture: Alamy

‘There are two things that stand out most for me. The first being the immense sense of pride I felt being a student nurse in 2020, seeing everyone opt into clinical placements, unsure of the possible consequences, but taking the risks to care for the nation at that point,’ she told Nursing Standard.

‘The second thing for me would be my extended paid clinical placement (I opted into this during June-July 2020). I ended up in an A&E, which was terrifying to begin with. I witnessed some dramatic events, and at times it was emotionally challenging.

‘But even in the middle of the peak, the team always valued my place as a student and my learning journey. I felt so supported by everyone in that clinical area, so much so that I have a job there when I become a newly qualified nurse.

‘The team were so supportive of each other, which I think stood out most. Even in the hardest of times, everyone was there for everyone, and everyone helped each other though. I’m truly grateful for that.’

Sally, paediatric intensive care nurse

Sally said: ‘I remember feeling quite afraid at the beginning and the walk to work being eerily quiet as everyone had to stay at home. The hardest aspect as a children’s nurse was the guilt that nurses in the adult services were having a difficult time.

Feeling hot wearing full PPE during 12-hour shifts. Picture: Alamy

‘A few people were redeployed to help, but I think in hindsight more could’ve probably gone, but there was still a fear that COVID could hit children at any time and we would be inundated. It was difficult when there were rounds of applause for the NHS and you didn’t feel like you were helping at all.

‘The times we did have patients with COVID and needed to wear full PPE for 12-hour shifts was hard, especially as it was particularly hot in the first wave and fans weren’t permitted because of infection control.

Looking back Sally said that overall the experience made her a better nurse.

‘At work it made me consider my colleagues more, how were they managing on a shift by shift basis, did they need any extra support?,’ she said.

‘Things such as only one parent being allowed to visit was difficult and these things helped improve my communication skills as a nurse.’

Kevin Murphy, district nurse and lecturer in adult nursing at Northumbria University

‘The hardest part of the pandemic for me was the lack of professional networks available to support front-line workers, as many had started to work remotely,’ said Mr Murphy, who returned to the front line from an academic secondment at the start of the pandemic.

Kevin Murphy, district nurse and lecturer

‘This placed significant pressure on our staff and teams, requiring many nurses to work above and beyond their already demanding nursing duties. Many colleagues were working overtime, particularly once the housebound vaccination programmes started.

‘We also bridged the gap in providing education and support to care homes, developing a face-to-face PPE teaching team to support all our care homes in the area.

‘I was immensely proud and inspired by how the service coped with the incredible pressures and workload demand caused by the pandemic. Many junior staff nurses were working at levels way beyond their years, showing great compassion and professionalism throughout.

‘The hardest part of the pandemic for me was the lack of professional networks available to support many front-line workers, as many had started to work remotely’

‘The emotional demands of the role were also increased, with community nursing leading on palliative care over this time, often in the absence of medical and specialist support which was more accessible pre-pandemic.

‘I will always hold good memories of the excellent, committed and devoted colleagues I worked with and continue to work with now.’

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