Medics are preparing for “battlefield medicine” as they take on coronavirus, facing increasing numbers of people dying without family by their side in hospitals, a senior nurse has said.
Roisin Devlin said she and her colleagues are working in a “completely alien” environment, as they struggle with the reality of not being able to comfort dying patients and their loved ones as they normally would.
The interim clinical manager in the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust and board member of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said she is preparing for a rise in admissions in the week ahead and the emotional toll as the expected peak of the virus nears.
The 47-year-old, from Belfast, told the PA news agency: “I think we are preparing for battlefield medicine in that we will be doing everything that we can for patients but if we get the volume of patients that are predicted there will be really difficult decisions for people to make.
“I think that what frightens people is that we don’t know what is coming and when you look to some of the pictures in Italy and Spain, when you see the genuine pictures of people lined up corridors all the way along hospitals because there aren’t enough intensive care beds, that’s terrifying.
“It’s terrifying because you’re not able to deliver that care that you would normally give and decisions are going to have to be made about who’s the most appropriate person to receive the care and that’s not the way the NHS works normally.”
She described some of the challenges of showing patients empathy when they cannot see a smile through a face mask, and being unable to “pop in and out” to people who might be alone in side rooms, for fear of increasing the risk of infection spread.
The nurse, who manages 300 staff, said: “It’s a completely alien way of nursing that people are struggling with because we came into nursing to care for patients and absolutely we will do everything we can, but that type of care is just going to be different and I think that’s what some staff are struggling with.
“It goes against the grain of everything that is nursing.”
The mother-of-one said colleagues were also well aware of the risk they themselves face on the front line.
With her siblings on lockdown abroad and parents self-isolating, she told of a moment in recent weeks when she called her radiographer husband to voice her biggest fear.
She said: “I was just driving to work and I thought ‘what happens if we both get sick and need hospital?’ Where do I send my daughter? That realisation that we had nobody, that if we both fell ill in the morning I had nobody to take her.
“And then there was that next conversation of ‘and what if we both die?’ Your job is to look after your child and if you’re not here, who does that?”
So just when I think I have stopped crying over the kind acts, our neighbours arrive with these – no words, just a blubbering mess pic.twitter.com/zJ4ITFzgXA
— Roisin (@rosydevlin) April 2, 2020
She paid tribute to the “amazing” teamwork across her organisation as people pull together, and expressed gratitude to people who take part in the weekly clap for carers, as well as neighbours who recently delivered homebaked buns to say thanks.
“The kindness that has been shown to nurses has been unbelievable,” she said.
But she stressed the importance of support being provided to healthcare staff when the pandemic is finally over.
She said: “My big concern is then when the shops open and the pubs and the clubs open and life goes back to normal, it’ll be then that healthcare staff will really start to feel it because that’s when they’ll have time to look back and time to remember and time to think about things.
“And there needs to be a huge amount of support for healthcare staff at that stage.”