On the frontline: “My role can be very sad, but this is where I belong”

Categories: Care, Featured, and People & Places.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, staff from St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth have been supporting their NHS colleagues on the frontline at University Hospitals Plymouth, to make sure that patients who are dying from complications of the virus receive the compassionate end of life care they need. Here nurse Julie Ayers shares what it’s been like to work on the hospital’s acute wards during the pandemic.

Ordinarily, our team is involved in looking after up to 40 hospital patients at any one time, ensuring they receive the highest calibre care and giving emotional support to their families too. While we are a small team, we are also flexible, so when the gravity of the Covid-19 situation brought huge extra pressure on the hospital, we were able to adapt quickly as part of its response to dealing with the emergency.

This was about more than just providing specialist care for patients with complex symptoms caused by the virus. We were also there supporting hospital staff who suddenly needed to have difficult but necessary conversations with patients’ families. This was especially hard for colleagues who’d never done it before, in some cases because they’d only very recently qualified as doctors and nurses. We drew on our experience to build their confidence, and helped them do this with kindness and sensitivity, while not shying away from clarity because it’s so important to be open and honest in these situations.

When inpatient and outpatient cancer treatment temporarily transferred to nearby Nuffield Hospital, we were there to provide specialist training for staff, many of whom were completely unused to looking after people with terminal illnesses because that’s not what their usual work involves. We continued to provide support for them until cancer care returned to UHP NHS Trust in August.

Adapting to challenges

When I look back at that time now, which felt so relentless, I also recall how daunting it was, especially in those first few weeks because none of us knew what to expect. I felt really anxious at first, especially with so many news reports about healthcare workers dying from Covid-19, but I think those fears are only natural.

What’s really helped – and what’s really stood out to me – is the level of support we’ve given each other. It’s been phenomenal, not just in our tight-knit team, but more widely across the whole hospital. We are really there for each other because we all recognise the importance of what we do. At the same time we empathise, because we’re all juggling our work with the personal challenges everyone is experiencing due to the pandemic.

We had to adapt the way we worked really quickly because things were changing, not just daily but sometimes by the hour. We just got on with it because that’s what we do. I’ve worked in palliative and end of life care for most of the past 20 years and have been back with the St Luke’s team for the last three – it’s simply where I feel I belong.

I think because of what we’ve already weathered, we know a lot more about what to expect as Covid cases continue to rise, though of course we can never get complacent.

A safe place

I still feel some trepidation – my biggest fear would be to have the virus, be symptomless and pass it on to one of my family – but with all the strict infection control measures in place, the hospital does feel like a safe place to work.

I really want to emphasise the safety aspect because the rising number of deaths in the community points to people with terminal illnesses putting off hospital treatment because they’re afraid. I want to say to them, please keep your appointments. Or if you’re worried something might be wrong, don’t put off contacting your GP. It’s so important that people don’t delay what could turn out to be life-saving treatment.

Despite all the challenges and the emotional toll my work can take, I still love what I do. Although my role can be very sad at times, it is nevertheless really rewarding, as I know I make such a difference to people’s lives.

More information

Our Frontline is a partnership between Shout, Samaritans, Mind, Hospice UK and The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It offers round-the-clock one-to-one support, by call or text from trained volunteers, plus resources, tips and ideas to look after your mental health.

Hospice UK’s Just ‘B’ Counselling & Trauma helpline.  The service is a free confidential national helpline available 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm on 0300 030 4434, providing bereavement, trauma and emotional support for all NHS, care sector staff and emergency service workers.

  • Call the ‘Just B’ Counselling & Trauma helpline on 0300 030 4434
  • Visit the Our Frontline site