“Watching People Gasp For Breath Is F***ing Horrible” — These NHS Workers Are Not OK

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe.
"I find it really hard not to burst into tears when I’m getting the bus home from a shift in the intensive care unit (ICU) and there are about 25 people stood around getting drunk," says Leanne*, 25, a senior staff nurse at a central London hospital who also worked at the NHS Nightingale during the first COVID-19 wave. "I want to say to them: 'Do you not understand how this is going to end?'"
Speaking to me on a day off, before another busy week in ICU looms, Leanne is cheery and friendly in nature but blunt when it comes to what she wishes the public knew. "People need to understand it’s fucking horrible: watching people gasp for breath. Holding an iPad up to a patient’s face, their family bawling as you turn those tubes off is horrendous. It’s really uncomfortable and I think people need to feel uncomfortable now." 
Earlier this month, England entered its third and toughest lockdown since March 2020 and just a few days ago the UK reported its highest daily number of COVID-19-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The latest rolling news bulletins may have come as a shock to some but for the NHS staff working solidly throughout, it’s something they’ve been dreading for months.

Seeing this many people die in a small space of time is not normal. It’s not normal for ICU nurses to see that.

"It was almost like it was all over and we were having a party," says Kate*, 31, a GP based in Manchester, of the summer months when restrictions were loosened. "You got that vibe off everybody that it was all over, and it was never all over. I don’t understand why there was a pretence that we could ever have had a Christmas."
She believes that the government’s push for schemes such as Eat Out to Help Out last August created conflicting messages for the public. It’s a sentiment shared by Faz, 26, a senior staff nurse working in an ICU in a central London hospital. "I don’t blame people for going shopping or going to restaurants. I blame the government. I think they’ve really, really failed us." 
Having come off a series of night shifts, Faz is straight to the point about the current situation she’s seeing on the wards. "It’s horrific and so much worse than the first time because we’re already reaching capacity." She describes feeling added pressure to remain strong in front of more junior members of staff and worries for the long-term impact it will have on their mental health. "Seeing this many people die in a small space of time is not normal. It’s not normal for ICU nurses to see that." 
Last September, the Guardian reported that more than 1,000 UK doctors wanted to quit the NHS over the government’s handling of the pandemic. Faz is not at all surprised: she knows at least 10 nurses who left ICU after the first wave; some have switched to the private sector while others have left the profession altogether. "I know already that there are people who won’t stay after this. They’re staying now because if they left, the guilt would kill them, but after this has died down, I genuinely believe a lot of people will leave the profession."
Almost 10 months on from the first lockdown, it’s no surprise that there’s been a change in mood given the emotional, physical and economic pressures faced by so many across the country, but this discernible shift in attitude has also been felt by those on the front line.

I’ve had three people in their 20s come in with really bad COVID pneumonitis and at least one of them will die.

They each point to a distrust in Boris Johnson and the government as playing a key part. "People think if those in government aren’t following the rules, why should they?" says Faz, referencing Johnson's former advisor Dominic Cummings and that infamous Barnard Castle visit. All the NHS workers I spoke to in researching this piece were united in the belief that the latest lockdown was far too long in coming. "From about October, there was definitely an awareness among GPs I spoke to that there was more COVID in the community than there was the first time round," explains Kate.  
Misinformation is another big problem they’re facing. "It has been horrible seeing the COVID deniers, the anti-vaxxers, the people that believe we’re lying and those going round empty outpatient departments pretending like they’re empty ICUs," says Leanne. "And people believe it," she adds. I ask whether any of them have treated patients who thought COVID wasn’t real? "Yes." Any similar struggles with family and friends? "It’s very hard to work long days in ICU and then to see a relative posting on Facebook that COVID is fake," explains Leanne. 
"I’ve heard from lots of friends who have family members who don’t believe this is true. I hear the phrase 'winter pressures' a lot. You really think we create 200 ICU beds every year? No, that doesn’t happen."
What about young people who think it won’t affect them? "I would say, I’ve just been on three night shifts and I’ve had three people in their 20s come in with really bad COVID pneumonitis and at least one of them will die," says Faz plainly. Having worked in post-COVID clinics during the summer, Leanne describes seeing patients in their mid 20s and 30s who now live with long-term effects despite only suffering from a mild case of the virus. There is going to be a whole new umbrella of respiratory issues that covers people who have had COVID and will now have long-term lung conditions, she states candidly. 
Despite their frustrations, sadness and fatigue, it’s clear from speaking to Faz, Leanne and Kate that they care deeply for their patients and profession. "I’m proud to be a GP," says Kate. "There’s this false idea out there that GPs aren’t busy but we’re managing a different part of the COVID crisis." She’s keen to stress, though, that people shouldn’t feel afraid to contact their local GP practice if they have any medical concerns.

It’s very hard to work long days in ICU and then to see a relative posting on Facebook that COVID is fake.

While they all recognise the well-meaning sentiment behind Clap for Carers – now back and rebranded as Clap for Heroes – these members of the NHS workforce would rather see people support them by staying home as much as possible and by following the guidelines. As Leanne puts it: "If people want to support us, I’d rather not be clapped. I’d rather people got behind us, came out to the rallies [for better pay and working conditions in the NHS] when it’s safe and contact their MPs."
"I get it. It’s hard," sighs Leanne. "It’s hard for people to stay home and not see others but at the same time we’ve all got to do our part. If nurses are having to be redeployed in really tough conditions, you should be able to stay home, have some Zoom calls and get social that way." None of them thinks of themselves as a hero and although they realise people mean it positively, the title makes them feel a little uncomfortable. "We’re not heroes, we’re just people," says Leanne. "We don’t wear capes, we don’t have superpowers, we’re human... We can't sacrifice ourselves for others."
Despite effusive praise for our NHS workforce from the government and the majority of the public, Faz fears that once the pandemic is over, recognition will slowly fade. Meanwhile she and her colleagues will remember forever. "We will live with these scars for a long time."
*Names have been changed

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