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Tales from the frontline

Galway sisters Aisling and Orla Hillary told David Hennessy about their experiences of working in the NHS during the pandemic. They speak of they feel let down by the government that was supposed to be protecting them as they saved lives. They describe the scenes they were faced with as like a ‘horror movie’ and a war zone but they also stress that the nightmare is not over.

Aisling and Orla Hillary have both seen the full horror of the Covid-19 pandemic from the frontline. The sisters from Galway have both working in the NHS. Aisling is an A&E doctor in one of London’s major trauma centres while Orla returned to nursing from her current job as a lecturer to do her bit during the pandemic. Orla works in intensive care where the most severe Covid patients are taken.

Aisling was London Rose in 2015 while Orla has played football for Kingdom Kerry Gaels and the London county team.

The two sisters were recently featured on Pat Kenny’s radio show when they got the chance to share what it was really like in the hospitals during the crisis. They both spoke of feeling let down by the government.

Aisling told The Irish World: “We got a chance to tell the public what it is really like working in the hospital and not just focusing on the numbers. I think it made it more real for people to hear the real life scenarios that we were being faced with every single day.

“Several people commented that I wouldn’t be getting a Christmas card from Boris Johnson but I have to speak the truth about how I feel and I know a lot of my colleagues feel. We are very disappointed in the very slow, and sometimes non-existent, response from the government.

“I personally feel very let down by them as I know many other people do here. At at time of crisis when we needed clear leadership and we neede support, it just wasn’t there. We’ve all lost confidence in the government here. They showed no real empathy, gave contradictory messages about PPE, social distancing and herd immunity at a time when we needed clear leadership and it just wasn’t there.

“The high death toll that we have here in the UK, a huge proportion of that would be as a direct result of the inaction of the government.

“I feel very let down by them.”


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Orla says the British government did nothing despite the warnings they had to anticipate what was coming and believes hard questions need to be asked. She also believes it is too early to be lifting restrictions with people dying by the hundreds every day and 4,5000 new cases presenting every day.

Orla says, “I think there’s a lot of things that need to be answered for. I think 100% that 42,000 lives that have been lost are all down to the Prime Minister. They knew this was coming. We’re still losing people and we’re easing the lockdown. It just doesn’t make sense. The leadership is not doing a good job at all. I just feel really let down by the government. How bad the outcome in the UK has been is down to the government guidance and leadership.”

Although there is supposed to be a ratio of one nurse to one patient in intensive care. The peak saw Orla and nurses like her having to take care of as many as six patients. She says she felt more like a fireman putting out fires than a nurse as things that she would usually do for a patient like brush their hair or turn them over had to be neglected to just keep them alive. What was also startling was the sight of an intensive care ward full beyond capacity with the sickest patients.

Orla says: “It was overwhelming. Before you step in, you take a deep breath and have to mentally prepare yourself for the day that you’re going to have. It was almost like you were preparing yourself to go to war. It’s a hard one to get to grips with.

“That was before you even got onto the unit. Once you got in there, it was just head down and start putting out fires: Making sure the patients are kept alive, making sure that all the machines are working okay, making sure you’re keeping the medication updated, making sure the oxygen is good for the patient, making sure you’re giving as much care as you possibly can even though you have lots of other patients to look after.

“It was hard. You almost can’t explain what it was like because it was so not real even though it was real.

“You have to just go in, get on with it and then come back the next day after not being able to sleep when you’re thinking about everything you did the day before and still having to power through. It was just putting out fires with four, five, six ICU very sick patients all on breathing machines, some on dialysis, some would be on six or seven infusions of drugs.

“You’re just so used to listening to alarms going off. One patient would go off, you would spend a lot of time there but you would have to be mindful that your other four or five patients might go off. Everything else goes out the window: Worrying about paperwork. You’re just more worried about your patients and doing everything you can to keep their oxygen up, their blood pressure up and making sure they’re also getting their medication.

Aisling and Orla gear up for the London to Ballaghderreen bike ride that they both took part in.

“It was like being in a horror movie. You just thought, ‘Oh my God, how long is this going to go on for? How long are we expected as nurses to look after this many patients with no breaks, full PPE, exhausted already?’ I was just worried this was going to go on for years.”

Orla, Aisling and all healthcare workers worry that people are already forgetting about the virus and warn that getting complacent now could bring a devastating second wave of the virus.

Orla says, “People are already beginning to forget everything that we’ve done. When you see the big groups of people, you’re thinking, ‘You really won’t give us a break’. It’s the big groups of people that are getting together now that are not listening to lockdown rules that are just going to send us healthcare workers straight back into the pandemic again and not give us a rest. it’s hard to think people are not taking it seriously and think it’s over. It’s not over for us. We still have to go in every single day. We haven’t had a break.”

Aisling has been appalled to see people forgetting about social distancing so soon after the numbers started to fall: “Suddenly people’s priorities have completely changed and it’s really disheartening to see that especially when you know first hand the amount of people that are dying, that are still getting sick from the disease. I just wonder where the general public think this has gone. It hasn’t suddenly disappeared, it’s still very much there.

“And unfortunately now is not the time to get complacent. I know we’re trying to get back to normality and some form of routine and normal lifestyle but it’s just not possible. Until we have a vaccine this disease is still here.

“It’s a tragic disease. It doesn’t discriminate. It can attack anyone.”

Orla says that nobody who had seen the horrors of the wards she worked on would be taking the virus so lightly so soon: “I think it comes down to there not being enough publicity done on the sh*t that we went through.

“If I was wearing a bodycam on just one of the shifts that I went through and people could see what it was really like, I think it would really change people’s opinions on going out and being in groups or people and getting close to people.

“I know a lot of people can’t handle seeing that but I think if they had even just seen a glimpse of what we were doing, what we were going through, the pressure that the nurses were under, they would maybe think twice about going out and meeting a friend that they shouldn’t or going into a group too soon again. It really would have made a difference.”

Other countries like Italy and Spain showed the overloaded hospital wards and the multiple body bags coming out to show their public how real the threat was.

“They didn’t do that here. 42,000 are now dead. It’s like they’re just numbers but there’s actually people behind the numbers. 42,000 is a huge number and it’s continuing to rise. It’s very sad that people are thinking we’re over it. There’s still hundreds of people dying every day. It’s not anywhere near over. I just think they don’t realise how bad things were.”

Aisling in full PPE gear although shortage of this was a major issue.

Not all who have died from the virus were elderly or had underlying health conditions. Many of those who have died from Covid-19 in this country would be with us now and for years to come. Just six months ago they could have planning this summer’s holiday never anticipating what was to come.

Orla says, “There’s so many who had no underlying conditions, never been in hospital, never been sick but did end up dying a lot sooner than they would have. The virus has taken away a lot of people that probably would have made it a lot longer in life and would have lived another happy 30, 40 years if this wasn’t around.”

One of Orla’s patients repeatedly refused to be put on a breathing machine because he wanted to propose to his partner. When he did get to propose, his partner said yes to the delight of Orla and the other nurses. It gave Orla’s team a ray of hope in a really dark time. The patient didn’t make it through the night.

“That was definitely one of the hardest ones. It was such a romantic story. It was such a happy story. This poor guy just really wanted to propose to his girlfriend because he knows it is probably going to be a long road. He knows he’s very sick and he could not see her again. He had to ask that question. She was so delighted and she said yes. It was such a nice moment in time. Then it just flipped 360 degrees and was a really rubbish phone call the next morning. It was very sad. It would have been amazing if he made it through, got home and they had been able to have that wedding. Unfortunately, there were a lot of people that didn’t have a good outcome, a happy ending.”

Aisling says, “I remember just at the start of hte real peak walking past the ambulance bay at the end of my shift. There were ambulances coming in very frequently. I remember vividly a man in his forties just hunched down and he could not breathe. He couldn’t catch his breath and he looked like someone who was probably fit and healthy beforehand. It’s an image that won’t leave my mind. That’s what people had coming to the A&E department, this awful breathlessness.”

Orla says, “I just remember a time when I was on shift and I just happened to be walking past a patient and a doctor. I just remember them being on FaceTime with their family.

“The doctor was saying, ‘Look, he’s not doing very well. I think the next step is to put him on a ventilator and with a breathing tube’.

“I just remember hearing the family being distraught and crying. I remember the patient being very tearful behind the mask and saying that he loved them.

“I just couldn’t stop thinking that that is probably the last time they’ll ever see him alive. That that was the last time the kids would see their Dad, a wife would see her husband and that this is the last conversation they’ll ever have.

“I couldn’t help thinking that could be me having that conversation with my father. I just remember feeling I could relate to it so much. It hit home for me then: It is everyone this virus is attacking. That was a very real moment for me.”

One of the biggest issues of the pandemic has been the lack of PPE for the people trying to save lives. Of course this is one of the big issues healthcare workers feel so let down on.

Aisling says, “Some people were saying you wouldn’t send an army to war without the proper protection and equipment. I personally didn’t but I know colleagues have felt that they were forced to work in situations when they weren’t fully protected.

“There were times when it did feel like the advice about the PPE was being given purely based on what was available. That was very frustrating.

“Morale was definitely affected. We’re trying to help people but the people in power almost see you as a number and expect you to get on with it. That is very disappointing.

“At the end of the day we all went into this job because we like looking after people, we want to help people but when you’re not supported by the people who make the big decisions, it definitely affected morale.”

One time when Orla arrived for a shift to find the PPE was late. For forty minutes she and colleagues stood outside, they could see the nurses they were to take over from but were unable to relieve them from their 13 hour shift because there was no PPE.

Orla says, “It was like being in a war zone. PPE was one of the scariest things. When it came to PPE we were told to put on the stuff with no idea if it actually protected us.

“And some equipment you knew had sat in a warehouse for years and years. Never been checked. Some of them had expiry dates of 2016 or 2017. We were just wondering, ‘How safe are we really with these things that have an expiry date of three years ago?’ I’m sure they’ve done tests but it’s in your head, ‘Am I really protected? Am I still going to contract this virus because this mask is out of date or because the mask doesn’t fit me?’

“It was very scary. Some days they were telling us to make sure our hands were never exposed. Other days they were saying we should be taking off our gloves and washing our hands. It was constantly a topic of conversation amongst nurses and doctors, ‘Are we following the right guidelines or not?’

Although the number of deaths are decreasing, it can’t be forgotten that hospital staff have worked straight through a time when many others have been furloughed.

Aisling says she can see the effects of working under such pressure with no let up.

“I feel like my colleagues are even more tired now then they were right in the middle of the peak because we just have to keep going. Healthcare is something that doesn’t stop. There’s no real break. Now we have to deal with the other issues that have been on hold.”

Aisling also fears that a second wave of the virus could hit in winter when hospitals already have pneumonia and other winter illnesses to deal with.

“We went into this job because we like looking after people. We want to help. I’m very grateful to have been able to help, do my small bit. I think people need to remember that we haven’t stopped this last three months. The world has stopped. We have had to keep going to work every single day. The next few months is probably when we’re going to feel the drain of it, the burden of it, especially when we head towards winter. I don’t even want to think about that because winter is always horrendous in A+E as it is.”

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