As the email came through telling me I was now officially Dr Ali, I was helping a 40-year-old man put on gloves, mask and an apron so he could see his father one last time before they closed the zip to his body bag, and wheeled him away to the mortuary.
Just a week before, I had made the same decision as many other medical students to volunteer and join the NHS effort against coronavirus. I was unsure of what to expect in the face of this unprecedented crisis, but I knew if I had the skills to help people in their darkest times, I wanted to be able to look in the eyes of the public and know that I did everything I could to help. How could any patient ever trust me again, if I failed to help them when they needed me the most?
On my first day, I was struck by how the NHS, normally a slow-moving beast, has already transformed into a machine ready to take on this virus. It took just a week for our university to design a volunteering system that was safe to deploy students across all years into specific roles in the hospital.
The same transformation could be seen in the hospital. Entire new wards were being set up, and doctors from all corners were redeployed to new areas in a matter of days. The atmosphere of the hospital had transformed too: even though there was a lingering air of unease, there was a sense of camaraderie. Old divisions melted away as everyone worked towards a common goal. And even though everyone was already working under a stress that I have never seen before, there was always someone there to help you along.
“I’m used to giving a wide smile, leaning in so patients can hear me, and offering a hand to squeeze. Now, contact with patients in their isolated bays is kept to a minimum.”
However, the work I’m doing is a different type of medicine to the one I was trained in. In a pre-covid world, I’m used to giving a wide smile, leaning in so patients can hear me, and offering a hand to squeeze. Now, contact with patients in their isolated bays is kept to a minimum – and even when you are with a patient, our personal protective equipment takes away all normal human forms of interactions. You stand two metres away, with patients only being able to see your eyes.
It’s hard to adjust to the fact that in this new reality you always have to think about how your patient isn’t just the person in front of you, but everyone else waiting to get in. At first I felt guilty that I was unable to provide the care that I know I can, but have come to realise that we will be unable to help anyone if we get ill. The need for personal protective equipment, and tests for healthcare workers is crucial to make sure we have enough staff well enough in the coming weeks to help.
I’ve also seen how being a coronavirus patient can be lonely and terrifying. You are trapped in a bay, with minimum human contact and no visitors allowed, while news outlets outside resign you to a death sentence. Chatting with a patient, I realised that I was one of the only human interactions he had that day. It’s easy to forget this when you are trying to move as quickly as possible to reduce your exposure, yet know your time with them can be one of the only soothing aspects of their otherwise terrifying time.
“People become doctors because they want to help people at their most vulnerable. Instead, we are constantly having to say no to people”
However, the reality of the situation can’t be ignored. I’m really angry that we have been put in this situation, and really I shouldn’t have to be here at all. This virus hasn’t come out of nowhere, and the pressures on the NHS haven’t suddenly happened on their own. Our health service is chronically underfunded, but doing it’s best to beat this global pandemic. Doctors are having tough conversations with patients about the reality of the situation, the availability of resources and being honest about what we can offer. Intensive care is already reaching capacity, and we haven’t even reached the peak of this pandemic.
The decisions we are having to make are some of the hardest a person can, and I’m worried about how different we all will be once this pandemic is over. People become doctors because they want to help people at their most vulnerable. Instead, we are constantly having to say no to people who in an alternative non-covid reality might be helped. It chips away at you.
And yet, I hope I still feel that same deep retching feeling in my stomach after seeing things most people will never witness. I hope I will always react like I’m human. In this week I’ve seen all of us working in the NHS give our all to provide the best care for every single patient.
I’m tired, and I know this is just the start. But I know tomorrow I will be here to do this all over again.
Shohaib Ali is a final year medical student at Imperial College London
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