By David Hennessy
Former London Rose and A&E (Accident & Emergency)doctor in one of London’s major trauma centres Aisling Hillary has given The Irish World an insight into what it is like on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic as the NHS prepares for the worst.
At 8pm last Thursday people all over Britain came to their doorsteps to pay tribute to NHS staff by clapping in unison. Aisling says the support of the general public has been incredible but also shared her infuriation with those who refused to follow government advice like those pictured in packed parks after the PM took the step of locking the country down.
Although some people have not been taking it seriously just because they haven’t been directly impacted yet, Aisling says everyone will be effected by the pandemic.
Aisling does add that the government could have acted sooner and made things clearer for people such as construction workers who still seem unsure of what they are supposed to do.
Aisling described more than 500,000 signing up to be NHS volunteers in less than 24 hours last week as amazing, adding that she sees colleagues performing tasks that they are not used to or are not completely comfortable with: “But this is an unprecedented event and it calls for things to happen that normally don’t happen.”
She says the demands will take a toll on healthcare staff if the crisis continues for months to come making the back up of these volunteers so welcome.
Although Aisling usually enjoys the various challenges of being an A&E doctor, these bleak and uncertain times can be overwhelming and frightening: “We know every day is going to get worse and it’s going to get busier.”
The 2015 London Rose also revealed it breaks her heart to see people not being able to see their families in their final days.
Aisling told The Irish World: “People have been incredible towards us NHS workers. I feel like a crisis like this brings out the good and the bad in people and the support has been incredible. I’ve had people messaging me a few words of support ‘thinking of ya’ and it makes such a difference.
“And I know colleagues who have kids, they’ve had people offering to babysit for them and just the smallest little things: Cooking home-cooked dinners and dropping outside the door for people who are in self-isolation.
“But I’ve heard of some horrible things: People slashing ambulance tyres, things like that which are just beyond me why anyone would do this at a time like this.
“The other part of it is however the slight ignorance of some people and the lack of sticking to what the government has been advising. Those kind of things are quite infuriating and people are not taking it seriously and probably don’t realise quite how serious this is because it hasn’t directly affected them yet but it is going to affect everyone in some way.
“One of the things that makes me really sad is the fact these people who have coronavirus, who are in hospital and are dying, their relatives can’t come to visit them, they can’t sit by their side while they’re dying. That breaks my heart, absolutely breaks my heart and I feel like saying to people, ‘If you got a call tomorrow saying that your mother/ father/ brother/ sister, someone that you know, was in hospital dying of this, couldn’t go, it might hit home a bit more’.
“There has been some naivety but at the same time I do think personally the government should have called stricter rules earlier because we saw what happened in China, we saw what happened in Italy and I don’t know why they thought that we would be somehow exempt from this happening.
“I can understand wanting to flatten the curve, there was some sense in that but at the same time the fact that this virus is so contagious and the way we live our lives now and especially in London, I just don’t see how that was ever going to work. I might be wrong. We’ll see in a few weeks’ time but from what we’re preparing for I don’t think I’m wrong in saying action should probably have been taken sooner.
“I don’t feel like there’s been very clear advice here. Even after Boris Johnson’s speech on Monday (lockdown speech of Monday 23 March), there were a lot of people, for example construction workers, who were still left, ‘What does that mean for me?’ Since then it has become more and more clear but I think it’s a situation where every day advice is changing. I think even for us it’s actually quite draining because every single day we go to work, everything has changed from the day before. But no one’s had to deal with this before so I can only criticise to a certain extent.”
Last week more than 500,000 volunteers signed up in just over 24 hours to help the NHS cope.Aisling welcomes this as she can imagine things getting much worse before they get any better.
“I think it’s amazing, the responses both here and in Ireland: Absolutely incredible the way people are stepping up and coming back to help.
“I know friends who work in different parts of medicine physiotherapists, healthcare assistants, things like that, who are being asked to do things they’re probably not really used to, maybe don’t feel comfortable but this is an unprecedented event and it calls for things to happen that normally don’t happen.
“It warms my heart the amount of people coming to help and every little bit will help because there’s services that are going to be losing staff to work with the unwell coronavirus patients.
“There’s structural changes happening where possibly certain hospitals may become more involved with the coronavirus patients and other hospitals will try to continue on providing other care.
“Some things need to continue in the healthcare service. There are some people who have been waiting for really key cancer treatments or children with congenital heart conditions that need surgery. There are so many ways this is going to affect the healthcare service, not just the direct impact of the coronavirus and the amount of people that are going to be and are sick from it and are going to die, it’s the aftermath on the healthcare service of that as well and all the other patients it’s going to effect.”
These reinforcements will be needed as inevitably hospital staff, like everyone else, are having to and will have to self-isolate.
“We already lost a lot of staff because they’re having to self-isolate because they themselves have a cough or fever or someone in their household has a cough or fever. I actually personally know of two doctors who are ill in hospital on oxygen therapy with coronavirus so it is happening.
“Of course it is frightening but if you’re well, you want to be able to work and help when you can because we know our colleagues are suffering when they’re at home.
“We’ve all been trying to cover the rota. If this continues for months, it is going to take its toll on the workforce but there’s lots of plans in place to battle that like with the extra staff coming, people coming back from other countries and helping out.
“My sister is a nurse in intensive care and she’s having to self-isolate at the moment. She’s dying to get back to work to help.”
London’s ExCel Centre, which usually holds sporting events and major entertainment events, is being transformed into NHS Nightingale which will hold 4,000 patients.
“We have to be ready in case capacity at the hospitals reaches its limits which I imagine it will do if we look at what’s happening in Italy and Spain. It’s better to be prepared for the worst case scenario.
“Having that back up will absolutely help. Hospitals are making massive changes and preparing for these worst case scenarios. I know hospitals are creating huge numbers of intensive care beds however they can and training up staff as quickly as they can to help support those services when we get to that point.
“It’s a strange time. It’s very hard to put it into words exactly how it feels. I’m generally quite a positive person anyway but even in this situation there are times when I feel like, ‘Oh gosh this is really overwhelming and quite frightening what is happening and what’s to come’.
“But I think a lot of us, even though we’re scared and worried about what’s going to happen, we feel quite privileged that we do get to go to work still. We have a job at the end of the day and we’re working as part of a team who are also going through the exact same thing so we can share our emotions with each other.
“It’s very clear everyone’s feeling very worried and scared at times but at the same time it’s amazing the resilience that’s out there.
“Part of the thing I love about my job normally is the, ‘Ooh, what’s going to happen today? What’s today going to bring?’ You never know what’s going to come through the doors of A&E whereas it’s flipped on its head now, we know every day is going to get worse and it’s going to get busier.”
Aisling stresses that mental health, a very current issue, has to be considered at these times.
“I’m very conscious of the fact that this can significantly affect people’s mental health, the people who are isolating or the people who have to work at home. There’s a website called mentalhealth.org.uk. It’s just simple things to keep doing like keeping a routine, use that one exercise a day just to get some fresh air and clear your head. I do think this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We really need to try and focus on people, especially people at home.
“A lot of good things are coming out of this among the horrendous scary times. Hopefully when this is all over life will be better because people will have learned hopefully to appreciate life and what it really means andwhat is important in life.
“I just feel sad that I don’t know when I’m going to see my parents again.”
Unsurprisingly Aisling has seen a drop in the number of people coming to A&E with the usual sort of complaints A&E would deal with.
“If you don’t need to come to A&E, you really shouldn’t because there’s just such a high percentage of patients there who have coronavirus now that we’re trying to warn people to stay away if they can.”