My Covid 19 story: “It’s hard to breathe”

In this series, we have been featuring the stories of Filipino frontline staff working in Covid-19 wards and in intensive therapy units (ITUs). In the following article, we hear the story of Carol.

There are now more than 105,000 people who have died in the UK after testing positive of Covid-19. With 3.7 million cases and 3,784 people in hospital as of the latest report, the UK is one of the ten worst affected countries by coronavirus. For hospital staff, as well as families, it’s an intense and often draining experience.

We spoke to Carol, a Filipina nurse, who has been working for the NHS for almost 20 years. She told us about her experiences working on the frontline during the pandemic, and the effects it has had on her family. 

Upon her request, we have changed Carol’s name and other personal details. This interview was conducted in late 2020, before the current pandemic wave.

Carol moved to the UK in 2001 and is a senior intensive therapy unit (ITU) nurse at a large hospital in the South of England. With her husband also working in healthcare, she says was worried about the first wave of coronavirus and the possible impact on her family, including her two children. 

The first wave

“I was so scared because this virus was new. At that time, we were trying to learn more on how we could protect, manage and prevent ourselves from getting infected. I was scared for my family because their dad and I are both healthcare workers and we didn’t want to bring the virus back each time we came home.

“As a mum of two, it was challenging and hard because aside from working with sick people, the workload from school was added to the things we needed to do for our children. The school sent home work so we were their teachers too, and I must say it’s not my cup of tea!”

As a senior ITU nurse, Carol described how she and all ITU nurses had to adapt how they worked during the first wave. 

“In the hospital there were a lot of changes. All ITU nurses – from neuro, general, cardiac and surgical – needed to work as one team. They changed the time we started and ended our shifts.

“Every time we came to work, we didn’t know where we would be working. Either we would be placed in neuro-ITU or cardiac ITU or the Covid-19 unit, so we just needed to be prepared for wherever they sent us.”

The need for more staff during this time also meant that a lot of nurses from different departments were called to work in ITU to help out, which she found difficult. 

“It wasn’t easy because they were not trained to work in a critical care setting. The amount of work and responsibilities on us was so hard and heavy because we had our own patients, but we also had to watch and supervise these nurses and their patients too.”

Struggles with PPE

Carol found looking after sick coronavirus patients difficult during the first national lockdown because of the personal protective equipment (PPE). 

“It was hard at the beginning because we needed to get used to wearing PPE. It’s still not easy because it feels so hot inside: we sweat inside our gowns. It’s hard to breathe because of the FFP3 masks we wear and it’s difficult to see because of the mist from our glasses and face shields.”

While out of the unit we needed to do all our basic needs like eat, drink and use the toilet because once we were back in the unit, we couldn’t come out for the next three or four hours again.

“During the first lockdown we were also struggling with a lack of supplies of PPE, so we were asked to try to only come out of the unit two or three times in a 12-hour shift for a break and to get some fresh air. 

While out of the unit we needed to do all our basic needs like eat, drink and use the toilet because once we were back in the unit, we couldn’t come out for the next three or four hours again.”

Gaining confidence during the second wave

Carol explains that the ‘second wave’ of the pandemic in late 2020 did not seem as bad as the first one. 

“The number of Covid-19 cases in the hospital was rising but stable. There were very sick patients in general ITU, but not as many as before. During the second wave, I remember looking after a Covid-19 positive patient in ITU. The patients then were not as sick compared to the first wave. 

“We felt more prepared and organised and the medical team were more confident on how to manage the patients. We were also well equipped and felt hopeful for the future.”

Still concerned

Although Carol says she feels more prepared at work these days, she is still worried about the safety of her family. 

“I don’t know if I can say that I am confident with my family’s safety right now, because we still can’t predict if we’ll get or catch the virus. 

Every week I got emails from their schools informing us that there were more staff and students testing positive for coronavirus and that some groups of students needed to isolate. 

The children are resilient, and can be asymptomatic, but they can also be a carrier to those vulnerable people who can be infected.”

My Covid-19 story series:

Finding one’s inner strength amidst death and despair

Discovering strength in solitude

A young dad, his prayers and a diary

Finding purpose amidst the pandemic