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Photograph: Time Out London/Sagila Thiruthanikasalan

View from the Frontline: the Covid ward nurse

Nursing associate Sagila Thiruthanikasalan on how the gastro-surgical ward she was working on quickly became a Covid ward

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We were a gastro-surgical ward. At the end of February, we started having patients with a bit of abdominal pain who didn’t always tell us they had been abroad. Very soon we realised they had Covid and we quickly became a Covid ward. Initially, it was extremely difficult because we had to manage both the surgical patients and the Covid patients at the same time.

I ended up getting Covid in March. These patients didn’t tell us they’d been abroad so we weren’t wearing PPE when we were seeing them. At the time, I didn't actually know it was Covid – it was a sore throat and I was a bit under the weather. Towards the end of me recovering I found out that [losing] taste and smell were symptoms and it then made a lot more sense. 

When I went back, the ward was set up differently. You had to wear a mask whenever you entered and your scrubs had to be removed every time you left the ward to go anywhere else, even if it was to pop out for fresh air, you had to change into your clothes and put on another pair of scrubs afterwards.

We became a palliative Covid ward and it was horrendous. Every shift one person was passing away. It definitely got morale down. 

There were shifts when I had eight patients. We had elderly patients who had surgery with Covid and you have to make sure they get turned so they don’t get pressure sores, which turn into deeper wounds. During that period, when we were short-staffed, I wasn’t doing it as often as I would have liked. We tried to do it every two to four hours but we were probably doing it once a day if we were lucky because we were so busy. I remember coming home and thinking: How can we fix this?

I live an hour and a half away from where I work and my parents are vulnerable, and the other flat I stay in is with my friend who was heavily pregnant. Working on a Covid ward, I didn’t think I could stay at either place. My colleague contacted some Airbnbs and we found a three-bedroom flat which was a ten-minute walk away from my organisation. If anything went wrong at work, we could debrief together. 

The neighbours next to our Airbnb are great. Someone rang the doorbell earlier to drop off pasta and sauces from Italy. One of them gave us a bottle of champagne on Nurses’ Day and they’ve offered to do food shopping for us. 

There was one shift when I was looking after a gentleman who was on good terms with me, we were cracking jokes. When I checked in just before leaving my shift, his breathing was very bad, he was on my mind. At 1am I called to ask how he was. They said his breathing wasn’t good and he’d likely not last the next 24 hours. You know when you wish you could have done more? He passed away about half an hour after I called. It broke me. 

That patient became the fourth or fifth one I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I cried my head off and I can count on my hands the number of times that’s happened. I’ve worked here for 13 years and with the patients that have really affected me, I remember their names, how they passed away, their relatives, everything. 

We couldn’t let all the relatives of patients visit. One patient had ten children, and all of them wanted to visit but couldn’t because of the high risk to them. We were one of the places that did let people in if the patients were expected to go soon, but then if they had ten children we couldn’t let that many people come in to see them. We let a few in, and they appreciated it but we were so aware of the infection risk to them.

I was very close to my grandmother growing up and there was one patient whose grandmother was here. He broke down and said: ‘I can’t even hold her hand’. It was heartbreaking.

We’ve had relatives of NHS workers come in, I’ve looked after three of them and one didn’t make it. That person’s relative is going to blame themselves forever for being at work and exposing their loved one to it. 

Before we had iPads donated, elderly patients couldn’t use social media or make video calls. Imagine having to pass away by yourself, not being able to say goodbye to your wife or husband or your parents. It was awful. 

I made sure that we had a little debrief after every shift to talk about what went right and wrong. Colleagues would stay behind and debrief when they’d had a difficult day. It’s just about getting the person that’s upset to realise that they are doing everything humanly possible. 

Read more from this series:

View from the Frontline: the firefighter delivering PPE.

View from the Frontline: the Covid ward doctor.

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