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24 Apr 2020

Back on the NHS frontline: what’s it like to return to help during Covid-19?

I have found returning to clinical medicine a bit like riding a bike – wobbly, some stabilisation needed but generally smooth unless you hit a pot hole.

I was lucky to have at least had a few tasters before the current pandemic, but last weekend I undertook my first Covid-19 shift to cover the increasing rota gaps from self-isolation, sickness and bereavement leave.

I won’t sugar coat this. I was scared. But, like riding the metaphorical bike, I knew I could do it. After all, 9 years of training as an A&E doctor before moving to the Medical Protection Society (MPS) had not fully escaped me.

The A&E department was well stocked with PPE and there is a sense of comradery among staff. 

Policies are changing daily, often multiple times a day, so there was no feeling of stupidity when I asked the “stupid” question.

Staff were supportive and happy to help, even laughing at me subtly when I managed to put my visor on upside down.

Patients were grateful for us working and amazing themselves and us with bizarre injuries during lockdown; 3 dislocated shoulders in one shift would usually be unheard of but anything goes at the moment.

I did see Covid-19 patients and they are sick. The doctors and nurses are rushed off their feet, but working with a smile.

I heard happy stories, stories of strength and resilience, stories of sadness and stories that beg belief, like NHS staff being booed as they queued for NHS hour at a supermarket.

Wearing PPE and changing in and out of it is difficult; the “donning and doffing” is so unnatural. The constant mask wearing leaves dry lips and sore skin.

Communication is difficult and I felt wearing a mask actually made me feel less articulate as I kept forgetting what I was trying to say. Whether this was psychological I don’t know, but I certainly was not the only one reporting similar.

This shift has given me massive, first-hand insight into the stress doctors and nurses are under. They are fighting, but doing it with good humour and in circumstances that never of us ever imagined in our training.

I suspect only those who have practiced in war zones or third world countries would be even vaguely prepared for what has been thrown to us this past month.

I am doing more shifts over the coming weeks and will be able to see how the landscape is changing and how my front-line colleagues are coping.

I am sure before long A&E will be back full of the usual mayhem and I for one I will not be volunteering to do a shift the night the pubs re-open!

But for now, I remain amazed at the resilience of the workforce within our NHS and grateful that on the whole the public are trying their best to stay at home and protect the NHS.

I am proud to work for both MPS, which is working hard to provide advice and offer support to doctors facing unique challenges, and do my NHS shifts.

My usual sense of humour has been mellowed by the experience this weekend. But I did want to share, because it’s not all scare stories and those on the front line are looking after everyone to the best of their ability.

Dr Emma Green is a Medicolegal Consultant at MP

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