OPINION: We’ve become shells of our former selves

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OPINION: We’ve become shells of our former selves

A year after stepping into the intensive care ward at the start of the pandemic, Dr Michael Brunner reflects on 12 months of anger and frustration, bravery and courage

Dr Michael Brunner
Dr Michael Brunner

It’s little over a year to the day that I stepped on to our intensive care unit for my night shift and realised Covid-19 had breached the threshold. Nothing could prepare me and my colleagues for what was to come. 

On the night of Tuesday, 17 March, we began intubating up to three people an hour and the numbers kept on growing. It was clear the role intensive care would play in the pandemic.

In the space of a week, we were having big meetings about how we were going to plan for this and moving wards around so we could accommodate the large numbers of patients. You walk into the hospital and turn right
and it’s normal theatres, and then you turn left into the intensive care unit (ICU) and everything is different. Normal work life for me had stopped. One minute I was training people how to put on personal protective equipment (PPE), the next I was in it for hours on end.

I got coughed on by one patient (who later tested positive), which normally wouldn’t faze me but the idea of catching Covid and taking it home to my family made me very uneasy.

In the beginning the loneliness was terrifying, feeling like you were seeing something no one else could. Now, everyone is in my world. We wear masks and wash our hands.

Since then, there has been lots of crying, sadness and some anger. This last wave has really knocked everyone out and ‘the Blitz’ mentality evaporated around Christmas. The second wave was much worse and now everyone is beyond tired and worn out.

I was on a call with a consultant colleague not long ago – between us, we’ve been in this job for about 40 years. Both of us cried recalling speaking to family members about withdrawing support. These were the most difficult moments we ever experienced as we haven’t built up relationships with these people. The last time they saw their relatives they would have seemed fine. They haven’t watched them deteriorate so it comes as more of a shock.

To donate to the Intensive Care Society click HERE

We have to deal with so much anger and blame from relatives: you have people shouting at you – that it’s a hoax and you’re lying to them. They can’t see the sadness in your face when you talk to them on the phone and it all feels very unemotional.

Our intensive care unit increased to 50 beds, just to cope, at one point. The hardest part is knowing that there aren’t any more fully trained staff to operate these beds. We will soon have to deal with a huge backlog of patients with all kinds of issues. Is it fair to have stopped everything else in order to support patients with Covid? I don’t know the answer.

Covid will be a new disease with which we will have to cope. This pandemic should provoke some real questions: are we going to expand or will we reconsider our purpose and ask what is this resource for exactly? Is it life at all cost?

There were many acts of real kindness from the public who delivered food and drink at all times of the day or night. But sometimes, how we are treated in the hospital is at total odds with public displays of praise. Many doctors and nurses didn’t like the public clapping. To spend your entire year in PPE, not sleeping, sweating, dry, drained and then someone thinks he can call you a murderer. It’s heart-breaking.

This time was hard. It’s taken the soul out of a lot of people. We are shells of our former selves. We are a lot more cross. We all know colleagues who have died through no fault of their own. Who are they going to blame? During this time, too, I have made true friendships and have seen real courage and bravery.

To donate to the Intensive Care Society click HERE

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