Speaking through an oxygen mask and between laboured breaths, one patient joked to me: ‘My wife will be delighted – you’ve given me something that stops me eating.’
I snorted with laughter. I then had to explain to this gentleman that he needed admission to intensive care and despite the fear in his eyes he just said ‘I trust you’.
I’d spent hours of that shift fighting losing battles, rushed off my feet, consoling strangers and feeling inadequate. Yet at his most vulnerable hour, this man made me laugh on multiple occasions. I won’t forget his sense of humour because he reminded me of my father.
After that draining shift in March, I felt like a risk and a burden to my family so I left my parents’ home and moved into a hotel room, where I ended up staying for three months. When I went back to work the next morning, I eagerly flicked through our list of patients. His name had gone.
My colleagues, weary from their night, explained that he had not survived the shift. It was gutting to hear this, but his bed was filled with another patient, and there was no time for closure.
While our patients never suffered alone, there was often an empty space beside their beds, and in their hands, that we tried to fill. Knowing that they may not survive intensive care, we would insist they called their relatives to say goodbye.
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I couldn’t imagine the agony of hearing those words over the phone from the person you love most and in the days since, I’ve struggled to sleep thinking I might some day receive the same call.
Pictures: Priyan Odedra
Pictures: Priyan Odedra
It was even more heartbreaking to later have to call these families myself and confirm the unthinkable. It was truly humbling for them to end up thanking us for our efforts, despite it never feeling like enough.
At the peak of the crisis, shackled with PPE, we would hear a relentless ringing from the ward telephone kept behind infection barriers – probably relatives calling with knuckles white from the grip of their phones, desperate to know the latest.
This noise, combined with the sound of mechanical breathing and bleating emergency alarms from our patients’ monitors added to the melancholy of each shift.
It pained us that we never got to answer every one of the calls – we had no time, but we heard them ringing for those you loved.
It’s hard to explain the helplessness.
I’ve not been a doctor for long, but the consultants who’d worked in intensive care for over 20 years told me they’d never seen anything like it. I remember feeling inadequate as I stood in the middle of a makeshift intensive care bay – frozen between three patients – not sure who to attend to first.
The experienced and exhausted intensive care nurse and I performed rescue manoeuvres repeatedly for our patients who so helplessly craved more and more oxygen.
After they stabilised, and before we’d torn off our gowns, another emergency alarm rang elsewhere. This went on for hours, and then for days and eventually weeks.
Among the troughs there were triumphs. The NHS survives and thrives on its community of caring individuals.
We continued on the backs of porters that kept our patients moving through the hospital, and in the hands of the domestic staff that kept us safe against an invisible enemy. If our patients had hope, it was because of nursing care.
Intensive care means one-to-one nursing but often the nurses were stretched to four patients at a time. They suffered the injustice of trying to deliver the same quality of care without the necessary equipment – like a lack of intensive care ventilators, syringe pumps for drugs and kidney machines – not to mention, time.
I’m in awe of their capacity to continue while suffocating in PPE for hours without breaks, often emotionally broken.
The teamwork and sheer camaraderie was inspiring. The entire hospital stood shoulder to shoulder, shift after shift, to get each other through the trauma. Where one of us faltered or fell, another would pick us up.
In these dark times, we found comfort in our shared experiences and became part of a family away from our own.
Patients that clung to their lives with fingertips walked back through intensive care doors to thank the team, and in those moments we felt incredibly humbled and our hearts lifted together. Everything finally felt worth it.
As we approach the nadir of the first wave, we are better prepared for our future challenges. Our fear of a second wave is matched only by the exhaustion from the first.
I have begun to think about how I feel and it’s been difficult to address the resurfacing emotions I tried to lock away.
I know I’m not alone and as a creative outlet, I captured my colleague’s portraits with the idea that they would think about their involvement in the pandemic and send me their experiences.
I hope they found it liberating to reflect upon the heartbreak, and found some pride in their dedication to caring for others.
Dr Jens Full, who is a consultant anaesthetist, hadn’t worked in the ICU for over 20 years but said his colleagues pulled him through. He told me: ‘The very nurses, junior doctors, cleaners and porters who had been treated so poorly over many years were there on the frontline every day and every night.’
Intensive care consultant, Dr Catherine Peters, similarly described her NHS colleagues as the ‘most selfless, diligent and resilient’ people she knows.
She remembered: ‘I have never dealt with such a volume of sick patients, arriving relentlessly, and at times not knowing whom I should treat first. On several shifts I witnessed multiple patients dying in rapid succession, and felt utterly helpless as there was nothing more I could have done.’
While intensive care domestic cleaner Sarah Wise said she’s proud of everything NHS staff achieved.
She told me: ‘At peak, the pressure was unbearable with no space to move, triple the workforce around, all whilst wearing PPE, which is really difficult to move in. Tears flowed from all the stress and exhaustion, the loss of so many patients and colleagues both young and old.’
These are the faces still on the frontline and their stories deserve to be heard.
To see more of Priyan Odedra’s portraits of NHS staff, you can follow him on Instagram.
My Life Through A Lens
My Life Through a Lens is an exciting series on Metro.co.uk that looks at one incredible photo, and shares the story that lies behind it. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email [email protected] with MLTAL as the subject.
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