Coronavirus: NHS nurse at The Royal London Hospital describes life on the frontline

Members of The Royal London Hospital's accident and emergency department. Picture: Imen Reguzi

Members of The Royal London Hospital's accident and emergency department. Picture: Imen Reguzi - Credit: Archant

A nurse has described life on the frontline of the NHS’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Joanna qualified in 2014 and has worked in A&E departments ever since. Picture: Imen Reguzi

Joanna qualified in 2014 and has worked in A&E departments ever since. Picture: Imen Reguzi - Credit: Archant

Advanced clinical practitioner, Joanna Avery, is part of a team of medics in the accident and emergency department at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.

The past month has seen the situation in A&E worsen from staff swabbing patients to test for Covid-19 four weeks ago to people dying of the virus.

And departments not used to fatalities are seeing an increase in deaths. As of April 4, Barts Health NHS Trust, which operates The Royal London and five further hospitals, has registered 120 deaths.

Joannna’s department is now divided into “hot” and “cold” zones with Covid and non-Covid patients separated in a bid to protect patients and staff.

Food hampers made up of donated goodies and distributed to staff. Picture: Imen Reguzi

Food hampers made up of donated goodies and distributed to staff. Picture: Imen Reguzi - Credit: Archant

Thankfully, patients have not had to wait long for beds as a result of A&E preparing early with the rest of the hospital. A dramatic decrease in the number of people arriving with non-Covid illnesses also helps.

Some staff have had to go into self-isolation, though to date the hospital remains well staffed.

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But even though some of The Royal London’s workers are at home, it hasn’t stopped them from joining the fight by doing admin tasks.

A&E has also set up support groups for staff in isolation as well as a buddy network of doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners, healthcare assistants and more.

The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. Picture: Mike Brooke

The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. Picture: Mike Brooke - Credit: Mike Brooke

And NHS workers are doing their best to keep up patients’ spirits with friends and family stopped from visiting wards in a nationwide move to prevent the virus spreading.

Joanna said: “One reason I became a nurse was because I wanted to be able to be there when other people couldn’t be.

“For me, people dying alone is a really big fear; the emotional distress of seeing people die alone, especially if resources become tight and we can’t give the best care we want to; and that we might be limited in what we can offer.

“I’m worried about taking [the virus] home to my husband. My family is worried about me. I’m worried for the families that aren’t going to get to say goodbye. I worry about not having enough space, especially if wards get full.”

While working full time at The Royal London, Joanna has volunteered to work at NHS Nightingale in the Royal Docks, a temporary hospital set up to help deal with the pandemic.

“My family knows that increased exposure increases the severity of the illness. But for me, I would be more upset if I was sat at home not helping during my time off,” Joanna said.

Morale at A&E has been boosted by the number of gifts and goodies arriving through the doors, as well as former colleagues returning to clinical areas to help.

Final year medical students drafted in have brought smiles and encouragement.

Joanna said: “That makes everybody better. A&E is not used to pandemics, but it has dealt with major incidents.

“We’re not used to this situation, but everyone has some sort of inbuilt resilience which provides a morale boost.

“We all have our bad days, but we’re very good at recognising that in each other.”

Public support means a lot too, with Joanna moved to tears while witnessing neighbours applauding the NHS from their doorsteps during the clap for carers tributes.

“To know people are thinking about us, there are no words to describe that. But we’re also aware we’re not the only keyworkers in this situation.

“We also want to recognise others: the people in the Post Office, at the supermarkets and elsewhere,” Joanna said.

But she urged people to give medical staff a smile and praise instead of shunning or abusing them when they are out working in the community.

Her plea follows reports medics have been targeted by people who mistakenly fear the virus will spread from their uniforms while working.

“We’re all scared, but no NHS worker is going to put anyone at risk,” Joanna said.

“Desperate” people have even been stealing hand sanitiser from The Royal London and there have been reports of medics getting mugged for their ID, Joanna said.

“These actions are reducing how well we can help the public,” she added.

Joanna herself has not been tested for Covid-19 and is not showing symptoms. Her preference is to wait for antibody and antigen tests. Though if she became unwell, she would want a test.

“Not knowing is the biggest fear of all, especially those of us with children at home. It’s a horrible feeling you could be putting your family at risk,” Joanna said.

She added that Barts has been very good putting vulnerable colleagues up in hotels. Separating yourself from family would be a hard sacrifice, but it’s one Joanna and her colleagues are prepared to make to combat the virus.

A few staff at The Royal London even keep suitcases in the boot of their cars just in case they or someone at home falls ill and they have to move out temporarily.

And despite widespread concerns about a lack of personal protective kit, such as face masks, gloves and tunics, Joanna said she felt well looked after.

Queen Mary University printing 3D visors for staff being just one way the community is rallying to the NHS’s cause.

And Barts Charity, which supports the trust’s hospitals, is offering departments up to £5,000 for grassroots projects aimed at dealing with the virus.

After phones were removed from A&E cubicles as a precaution, the charity donated 20 walkie talkies so staff could keep in touch from inside isolation rooms.

And Joanna has set up an Amazon Wishlist to help buy things to boost morale, including phone chargers, hand creams, packs of long-life milk and coffee beans so staff can make the most of their breaks.

The A&E team has even been making up hampers of goodies for the cleaners, porters, radiographers and others to boost their morale.

“We’re all in this together,” Joanna said.

To donate to Barts Charity visit its JustGiving page.