‘Not running away’: Women fighting on Britain’s COVID-19 frontline
After a year that has shaken Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) to its core, women working for East Lancashire NHS Hospitals in northern England, talk about what the coronavirus crisis has meant to them.
At the end of each shift throughout the pandemic consultant nurse Sheeba Philip knew she could take the virus home, where she was caring for her mother. But every day she donned her protective equipment and carried on, driven by a sense of duty like so many other women on the frontline against COVID-19.
The first wave of the pandemic passed, but Philip’s mother, who was on dialysis, contracted COVID-19 along with the rest of the family in November.
“When she got it and she had to be admitted, as a nurse I knew she might be not coming home but as a daughter I was literally praying every day that ‘God, if it is your will, please let mum come home’.”
Lisa McMullin, a patient services assistant who cleans the wards, among other duties, joined the NHS early in 2020 when she was put out of business, cleaning domestic and commercial properties, due to the pandemic.
“I’ll never forget the things I’ve seen and the thing I’ve done. Never,” she said.
McMullin described a patient in the intensive care unit who had a photograph of his family by his bedside.
“I said ‘what a beautiful family you have’, and I’m like, ‘hang in there, keep going, keep going’,” she said. “And then about hour and half later his family came in and he was passing, and the scream of his daughter, that will live with me forever, forever, when he finally went.”
Thirty-three-year-old Dr Rahila Dusu moved from Nigeria in January 2020 to work as a junior doctor for the NHS.
Despite the pressure of coping with the pandemic without her usual support network, Dusu said she felt the experience had helped her grow, personally and professionally.
“I’ve learnt teamwork, I’ve learnt that I’m resilient, I’ve learnt that the people around me are resilient, as well,” she said. “I feel more confident, and a bit more bold, like ‘yes I can face anything else that comes my way’, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Critical care nurse Jacqui Jocelyn, 53, has worked in nursing for 30 years. Twenty of those have been spent on the intensive care unit.
After spending the year being with patients at the end of their lives, while their families were not permitted to do so, Jocelyn’s father was admitted to the same ward.
Her daughter, 19-year-old Ruby Jocelyn, was inspired by her mother during the pandemic and decided to take up nursing instead of a degree in business and economics. The care of her grandfather by ICU staff inspired her to pursue critical care, following her mother.
“When I started in December it was so, so busy,” Ruby said. “The age was dropping and there were people my mum and dad’s age on there, and their kids are obviously the same age as me, and I just couldn’t believe it and that made me want to help instead of running away.”
For paramedic Maxine Sharples, 36, a solid barrier between her home and work life was an essential coping mechanism, following shift after shift of transporting patients who would never return to their families.
“The hardest thing is that thing of taking someone away from their family and thinking ‘you’re not, they’re not coming home’, and they’re saying to you ‘will they be alright, will I see them again?’, and you’re thinking ‘no, I don’t think you will’.”