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Gaynor Power is ordinarily a pre-assessment nurse at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil, assessing patients before elective surgery.

“Nothing can prepare you” – what it’s really like to work in a Covid ITU

If the warm weather is tempting you to bend the lockdown restrictions this weekend, reading the reality of the twelve and a half hour shifts that staff in our Covid19 ITU departments are working might make you think twice and stay close to home.

While the outlook is sunny for the bank holiday, the soaring temperatures in stifling PPE are anything but comfortable for those wearing it. And many health professionals currently based in intensive care aren’t even in their usual environment, but are working tirelessly in unfamiliar conditions to help those worst affected by the virus.

Gaynor Power is ordinarily a pre-assessment nurse at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil, assessing patients before elective surgery. Having not worked on a ward – let alone in critical care – for the last 15 years, she’s been providing invaluable support to the Covid ITU team, working long shifts in a temporary ‘pod’ in the most challenging conditions she’s faced in her career.

 

“I started in the Covid ITU on April 6, which was Easter week,” said Gaynor, from Aberdare. “I normally work four 10-hour days each week but I’ve been working three 12 and a half hour shifts in ITU. I will be honest, to start with I was totally frightened and extremely anxious, but I came up to the pod the week before I started and shadowed a nurse, which helped but it’s still incredibly challenging.

“Even though people tell you what’s like, nothing can really prepare you until you experience it for yourself. I’d heard people say that wearing the PPE was very hot, and it’s warm as soon as you put it on, even before going into the pod. It’s hard to hear and communicate, and you also know you need to drink so you don’t get dehydrated, but you don’t want to drink too much as you’re aware you’ll need the loo. 

“Even though you get used to the PPE, it’s still uncomfortable. When I started in ITU, everything ached, even from the clogs we wear. I’ve adjusted, but wearing the masks hurts, as you have to press them in to make sure there’s a good seal. I can finish a shift and, when I go to bed at 10.30pm, the marks are still there.”

Gaynor knew Covid patients would pass away but the reality of working in ITU for weeks on end has been hard to deal with. “My first week was the busiest week we’ve had in ITU and nothing could prepare me for that,” she said. “The worst thing for me was feeling useless when I started, as I couldn’t do some of the things the ITU nurses could do. I’d had no ward experience for 15 years and no critical care experience at all, and these are critically ill patients who need massive care. I just wanted to help my colleagues but I was aware I was slower at first, and I found that difficult.”

Gaynor lives on her own but has a partner and friends in her community who she can talk to on the phone and online. “After a shift I phone my partner and I also have amazing friends,” she said. “We chat on WhatsApp and have a group quiz, which really helps.”

Going for walks in quiet areas close to home is also a way of unwinding and Gaynor usually enjoys cycling, although she’s finding her regular trails busier than usual at the moment. “At the end of a shift you just need to get home, as you’re physically and mentally exhausted,” she said. “For the first week I didn’t sleep, or I’d drop off but wake regularly. I’m also having very vivid dreams, including about things that have happened at work.”

A number of rest and recharge rooms have been set up in the hospital for staff to take a break from the demands of work, and Operating Department Practitioner Sophie Roberts has been appointed Wellbeing Coordinator, to signpost colleagues to the right support. 

“Everyone’s been great gelling together, constantly asking questions to check colleagues are ok,” added Gaynor. “One nurse makes cheesecake and another makes biscuit cakes, and there’s always someone to talk to when you need it. I don’t know how long it will be before I can go back to pre-assessment, but I’ll be here as long as I’m needed. 

“At the moment I’m coping as best as I can. There are still many things I’m unsure of, but the ITU nurses are patient and understanding and I always ask questions to make sure I’m working as safely as possible. I put it to one side when I go home, but I think it’s just a way of protecting myself. I’m not sure how I will feel when this is over and it all sinks in.”