On the front line: medical student leaves family home to fight coronavirus

As a young medical student living with vulnerable relatives, George Barker moved from his family home to a single hotel room in another city to join the fight against coronavirus.

In the latest of a series of profiles looking at frontline hospital workers, the 24-year-old from the Wirral tells the PA news agency what it has been like nursing the most severely affected Covid-19 patients at a London hospital.

For the last month, Mr Barker has been studying for his medicine degree at the same time as living in a hotel for NHS staff who have relocated to protect their relatives.

– What was it like starting your career one year early on an intensive care ward, amid a pandemic?

It’s much more real to see it in front of you. When you go on to the intensive care unit and see everybody in full PPE and pretty much every patient on a ventilator, you know the situation is really quite serious.

Not all of these patients are old people with conditions, some are relatively young, and it’s certainly quite shocking when you see that for the first time.

Communication is really tricky when everything is muffled and you can’t see facial expressions.

You just kind of see people’s eyes and there’s a voice that comes out from underneath.

Medical student George Barker is working in the intensive care ward of a London hospital (George Barker/PA)

– What is a typical working day like for you?

We (medical students) work out where we’re going to be most useful for the day.

That might be doing fit-testing for masks – the masks that we have in hospital are changing quite often depending on the stock, and certain mask shapes will fit certain face shapes.

We also adapt PPE visors so that they can be worn, and make sure PPE cupboards are well-filled.

In terms of patient care, we do eye and mouth care and doing patient washes.

We also turn patients from their back to their front, because you can improve the ventilation of oxygen that way while they are unable to move.

– How has this been affecting you mentally and emotionally?

It’s having a significant impact on all members of the team. Talking to some of the other doctors, everybody is commenting on how this is not something anyone has experienced before.

I’m not particularly close with the people that are living in the hotel where the hospital have put me up.

Even though we’re living in the same place, it’s not like we’re seeing or speaking to each other in the hotel. We’re all in individual rooms and socially distancing.

I’m finding it really important to keep in touch with friends and family right now. I talk to the people I’d otherwise be going for a tea or coffee with, or going on a walk with, over the internet.

Trying to make sure we still have those moments to smile and enjoy is so important right now.

– What do you make of the public support for the NHS?

It’s really humbling and very, very moving. I happened to be walking past one of the hospital entrances when it struck eight o’clock on Thursday, and I’ve never heard anything like that before.

I heard it from everywhere – there were people banging on pots and pans and clapping. It brought a tear to my eye.

In terms of people dropping things like Easter eggs off for us, and cards from kids, at the end of a tough shift it does put a smile on your face and gives you a bit of a boost.

The donations in terms of food are much appreciated – some are really useful when we can’t get to the shops because we’re working from 8am until 8.30pm.

But after this I think we should remember that all NHS staff – nurses, and physiotherapists and pharmacists and cleaners and cooks – should all be paid a decent salary.

George Barker with Professor Deborah Gill, director of UCL Medical School (George Barker/PA)

– What would you like the general public to know?

At the moment, staying at home, not seeing other people, keeping social distance, really is going to make a difference for all of this and ensure the NHS has the capacity that it needs.

Everyone can play a part and everybody’s individual actions will change the course of how it affects your local area and the country.

Do listen to the Government advice to stay at home, do stay away from people by two metres.

It’s these small actions that will ensure that we’re able to ensure that we’re able to provide care to everybody and ultimately prevent people dying from this.

– How would you like the see the Government support NHS workers through the pandemic?

I would like to see psychological support for all NHS workers, because it’s going to affect everyone working in a hospital right now.

I think mental health is something that this country has struggled with – be that how it is thought about socially, be that the accessibility of support – but when people are providing care in some extraordinarily difficult conditions, that mental health support really needs to be there during and in the long term.

Dedicated call lines for NHS staff to call would be really important – we’re seeing some awful and really sad things on a daily basis.

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