Last spring, when the General Medical Council emailed deregistered doctors such as myself, asking us to re-enter the medical workforce to fight Covid, I felt compelled to rejoin. I had left the NHS to pursue a non-medical career, but sitting on the sidelines during such a national health crisis seemed irresponsible and timid. I knew I had the necessary skills to treat patients, including firsthand experience of working through the swine flu pandemic.
I signed up to work on a general ward at a medium-sized hospital, where I wanted to help reduce patient load – Covid had created a massive backlog of work that needed manpower to complete quickly. I purposefully did not sign up to work on a Covid ward because my parents – who are South Asian, in their 60s, and diabetic – live with me, and the last thing I wanted to do was to expose them.
However, as the second wave peaked, individual cases of Covid began creeping up to our ward. Eventually, the hospital found itself under too much strain and our ward too became a fully Covid-positive ward.
Seeing Covid in the flesh left me shocked. Patient upon patient was being brought to us, battling for breath – it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Many would die within hours or days, while others were deceptively stable, until they too rapidly deteriorated. On one hand, it felt fulfilling to be back, making timely decisions to save lives. But on the other hand, I experienced a waking nightmare. To watch a tiny virus, whose transmission could always have been prevented, take so many lives so quickly has left me emotionally scarred, I expect, for life.
When our ward became a Covid ward, there was little change in the way we approached patients. We continued to wear just a basic surgical mask, gloves, and a plastic apron, which offered only minimal protection from the patients coughing in our faces, or needing examinations and procedures to be done at close proximity. Working conditions were cramped too – our team of seventeen shared three computers, two printers, and one tiny office between them, not to mention the narrow corridors.
As ward staff started getting sick one by one, I did my utmost to minimise the infection risk to my family and myself. Nonetheless, initially unbeknown to myself, my barriers were breached and I contracted the virus.
Officially, we were meant to be getting Covid swabs twice a week. But in reality, I only got tested once and did not even get my result back. So, when I felt my throat go sore, I ended up booking a local swab through the government website. By the time my test came back positive and I self-isolated, I realised the worst: my family had begun to fall ill. I made not just my two parents and my wife sick, but my two children too.
While most of us recovered, my dad, an NHS consultant himself, became severely unwell and required hospital admission for treatment and oxygen. At one point he was breathing at over forty breaths a minute as his vital signs deteriorated rapidly. We prepared ourselves for ICU, or worse. But, thanks to the timely treatment offered to him by his own colleagues on his own ward, he made a recovery in his own hospital.
I felt terrible about putting my family’s lives on the line by returning to the NHS, but was told by colleagues that, unfortunately, it was a risk with the job that could not be avoided. This made me a little angry – those who serve in healthcare shouldn’t have to accept such risk as fact for themselves and their families and just move on. We should simply be better protected and prioritised, so that there is little to no risk at all.
If my dad passed away, I don’t know how I would have coped, knowing that my decision to return to the NHS led to his death.
There are many straightforward measures that the NHS can still take to make frontline workers much safer. It starts with getting the very basics right: staff should be consulted and risk-assessed thoroughly; we should be given the highest quality PPE; and the promise of two tests per week should be fulfilled.
But there are additional measures to consider too. I see Covid-facing staff in other countries wear reusable protective suits. Instead of creating mountains of plastic waste, we should be provided the same. Also, negative pressure ventilation should be urgently installed in all hospital areas – this technology sucks out harmful airborne pathogens from indoor environments, reducing the risk of cross-infection, and is already used widely on infectious diseases wards.
Finally, in my view, we urgently need to put medical staff at the front of the vaccine queue. The NHS employs around 1.5 million people and all of us could easily have been vaccinated by now, had the government prioritised us a month ago. Frontline staff like me are literally bathed in Covid daily, and staff shortage due to infection is severely hampering all aspects of our service provision during this most critical of periods. Only this month, I had to check one of our young nurses and one of our surgeons into ICU – a truly heartbreaking affair, yet an avoidable one.
My dad came close to losing his life. If he had passed away, I don’t know how I would have coped, knowing that my decision to return to the NHS had led to his death. Who knows how many NHS families have been through what my family and I have, or worse. Nevertheless, it is still not too late to correct course.
The government and the NHS as an institution must do better for its staff. It is absolutely unacceptable to label eminently preventable disease and death as just a work hazard, and to simply look away.
Dr Ammar Waraich is an NHS medical registrar
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