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Frontrunner to front-line

Sara Treacy, Irish steeplechase athlete, tells David Hennessy what it has been like during the Covid-19 pandemic where her work as a doctor in intensive care saw her working directly with Covid patients.

Sara Treacy represented Ireland in the final of the steeplechase at the Rio Olympics in 2016 but her ‘other life’ that she is less used to being interviewed about is even more important, especially during the recent and ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Based in Birmingham, the athlete from Moynalvey in Meath is a doctor at the Good Hope Hospital in the Birmingham suburb of Sutton Coldfield.

As a core medical trainee in the intensive care unit, she was working directly with the sickest patients at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis.

Sara told The Irish World: “Obviously it was difficult because there were lots of very, very sick people and we weren’t able to have relatives coming in to visit because of the risks of them catching Covid.

“It was quite sad because you want to give your patients the best experience possible. I think that was very difficult for everyone, nurses and doctors and everyone who was caring for the patients because ringing someone on the phone and updating them, as much as you try and do it regularly, it’s not the same as them being able to come in and hold their relative’s hand.

“That kind of stuff is quite sad and quite difficult to deal with but at the end of the day we just had to focus on what our job was there and work through that.”

Sara Treacy with her husband Callum Oakley at the Olympics in Rio.

Seven months ago, few of us had heard of coronavirus. We have heard of little else for several months now.

Although the early reports were that only the elderly and those with underlying health conditions were likely to die, Sara and her team were not prepared to see young people who had previously been fit and healthy struggling with the virus.

“It all came on so suddenly. When this first came along, they kept telling us it was going to be mainly the elderly and people with underlying conditions. Then you were seeing people coming through that weren’t that old and people who were super, super sick that you wouldn’t expect to be that sick and for that long.

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“It’s always a little bit more unsettling. It was all a bit difficult.

“It was really sad ringing relatives trying to update them about their family members and not really having any positive news to tell them. It’s not nice. I just try not to think of how it’s affecting them because if you spend too long thinking about that, it would just break you.

“It’s not easier seeing an old sick person with the disease necessarily. I don’t want to sound callous, as if it’s worse to see young people or fit people with it as if it’s any worse than older people getting it. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case.”

Put onto emergency rotas, the peak of the crisis was demanding physically and mentally even for an athlete like Sara but she pays credit to the solidarity of the hospital staff that was very evident throughout.

“There were long days. We all were put onto emergency rotas so we were doing 12 ½ hour shifts. You got time off obviously within the days and nights. Some of the work was physically demanding.

“I thought the morale was good considering what we were seeing, how many sick people we were seeing come through the doors.

“The atmosphere amongst the staff was very supportive. I think everyone was mucking in and doing their best. If you could see someone was having a bad day you would try to support them and vice versa. You are busy and it was about coping with the workload, all we were having to do and just getting on with it really. We were all there to just do a job so you just get stuck in.

“I suppose the team work and things like that you see going on within the unit was pretty incredible really. We had people who usually work in other departments moving in who just had to get used to working in a new environment with new people in the midst of a crisis. They did phenomenally well and everyone came together and worked hard so from that point of view, it was a really good, cohesive team to work with.

“Morale was pretty good. We were kind of all looking out for each other and working together and learning about the condition as well. It was a brand new condition so we were kind of learning on the job.

“Obviously, we know how to treat people with respiratory conditions and that kind of thing but the specifics of it was different. There were real time studies going on that our unit was part of that were national multi-centre studies. We were seeing that unfolding on the ground: People developing these studies and restructuring the whole department, all that stuff was happening in real time so it was pretty amazing to see how well people cope under challenging situations.

“You’re proud to have been able to be part of it, to have played a little part but at the same time, hopefully we’ve seen the worst of it but obviously we don’t know what’s in store for the next year.

“I know they’re moving rapidly with the vaccine and stuff and people are a lot more aware about social distancing and protecting themselves so hopefully we won’t see the same level of flare-up that we’ve seen previously.

“We want to get back to our usual work. That’s how everyone feels at this stage. That’s the way we’re going at the moment but that’s where we would all like to be.”

And although the fear of a second wave is ever present, Sara says hospital operations are returning to normal now.

“Our numbers are very reduced now and it’s actually mainly normal work now and then just trying to move on with restarting regular activity.

“At the moment, I think it’s a case of taking stock of where we’re at and getting ready. They’re trying to restart all the other work the hospitals do. Some of it has been going on in the background all along but there were certain things that had to cancelled and postponed and we’re trying to get them back up and running.

“The most important thing is that everyone coming into the hospital stays as safe as possible so things can’t start back the way they were before, a lot of planning and preparation is going into it. It’s just a different phase, I suppose.

There’s no doubt about it, the numbers have decreased massively. We’re in a different position from a couple of months ago.”

While Sara says her team got each other through it they were also rocked by the news of deaths of fellow doctors and nurses who had succumbed to the virus in the line of duty.

“Definitely, there’s lots of individual, sad stories that have come out of it. Of course, it does affect you.

“At the same time we were in a position where I could go in and help treat some of these poor people.

“I was lucky to be able to get on and do it. I haven’t been home (to Ireland), I haven’t been back since before it all started. It’s difficult when you have a hard day at work and you can’t go and see your family members. It’s hard.

“You don’t want to bring it home to your own family, that’s why people were staying away from their families if they could.”

The general public showed their appreciation by clapping on Thursday nights. And although she was sceptical at first, Sara admits it did make her emotional when she walked out of work into it one evening.

“It’s funny, the clap for carers because I kind of laughed it off a bit at the beginning and then one day I was walking out of work and I happened to be leaving just as it was happening. Usually we would miss it because we were in handover. I got out of handover early, I was walking out and I was going out to my car and I could just hear claps and cheers all around the hospital just coming through the summer air.

“It was emotional. It was really nice.

“I’ve had loads of people doing lovely things on the street. My husband is also a doctor. They knew we were both working in the crisis. We had people offering to get us shopping if we needed it. A load of tomatoes turned up on our doorstep one day, it was funny. A little seven-year-old kid dropped them off and he was really cute.

“It was little things. People have been lovely. I guess people are lovely. I’m not surprised by people coming together and helping each other out. We’re usually too busy to see it but most people are kind.”

Many people have been vocal on the issue of the lack of PPE all the way through the crisis. Sara does not have complaints on this issue though: “No, I have to say I was really lucky that I never had any issues in the department I was working in. Because it’s high risk, we always had the masks and gowns and visors and things like that. From that point of view, I felt pretty well protected.”

The PPE keeps the staff safe but it also creates its own issues. For instance, Sara couldn’t give her usual reassuring smile to intensive care patients, this would have to become a thumbs up.

“I think everyone found wearing the masks for long periods of time difficult. It was also strange because you almost don’t recognise people in their masks and I found when we were wheeling the patients and they were waking up again, we can’t even smile at them. You have to shout to make sure people can hear you.”

One piece of fortune was that Sara was not intending on competing at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo even before the outbreak.

Sara has been plagued with injuries since she finished 17th in the 3,000m steeplechase final in Rio four years ago.

The games being delayed until next year may mean it is possible for her to complete in another Olympics but she is not thinking that far ahead yet.

“I’m not really thinking about the Olympics. I’m thinking more about the European Cross (Country Championships) if that’s going to happen in December which is in Ireland. I think that’s more of a realistic goal at the moment but I’ve still a long way to go because I had the (hip) surgery and I got pretty unfit. I was getting back into running and then I had to step back and get back into more rehab because things were starting to hurt. This was all happening pre-Covid. Then around Covid, things just changed again.

“It was nice to have running as a release and not have to worry about my gym and weight sessions done.

“At the moment, I’m just trying to build up my running and get a bit fitter and see where I’m at, maybe start reintroducing easy sessions and go from there and see where I’m going.

“It’s a huge commitment to try and make it to an Olympics. It’s a year away. I have so much to do. I can’t really talk about it at this stage. I think it’s more realistic to talk about something more like European Cross.”

Sara began studying medicine at Birmingham University in 2007, graduating in 2013.

“I came over here for medical school, then I stayed here. It’s been a good place for me to stay really. Home will always be Co. Meath but I’m pretty settled here.”

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