We chatted with critical care nurse Dawn Bilbrough, to find out what life has been like in ICU during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dawn Bilbrough, 51, from York, captured the nation’s hearts at the onset of lockdown, when her emotional plea to shoppers to stop stockpiling went viral. As a critical care nurse, she’s worked with COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic, and has had to manage the associated stress and emotional trauma that has entailed, as well as the physical difficulties of working while in full PPE.
We caught up with Dawn before her next 12-hour shift, to find out just how tough the past few months have been in an intensive care unit.
How long have you been a critical care nurse?
‘I became a critical care nurse in 2003, so 17 years. It was something I always wanted to do. I just have this natural ability to sit with people when they’re at their lowest and when they’re in pain, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional. I can just sit with them – I don’t shy away from it. I suppose you might say I just hold space.’
What are the rewards and challenges of your role?
‘The biggest reward for an intensive care nurse is seeing a patient come back through the doors a couple of months later, maybe a little weaker, but actually walking back through the doors and saying hi to us.
‘The hardest thing can be being constrained by protocol. Obviously every job has to have some structure, some protocol, so that can be a little bit frustrating sometimes. But we all work with it, don’t we, and accept these things? What else is challenging? The usual – lack of time, lack of resources – but we all pull together. We’re a really good team within the health profession, we just help each other out – everyone mucks in together.’
What’s been your experience of working in critical care throughout the pandemic?
‘During the peak, we had such a vast number of patients coming through with COVID, patients who were incredibly unwell. We’re used to dealing with very sick patients, but this was a case of every single patient was sick. As critical care nurses, we were spread quite thinly. We were very fortunate to have people come in from other departments, and even though those nurses weren’t trained in critical care, they got on with it and helped us as much as they could. Without them, I don’t know how it would have been.
‘We’d also have more than one patient, which goes against what normally happens. This was quite stressful, because everyone’s medication was ongoing, and even though you do have someone to come and support you, you’re the one actually managing the situation. It’s a huge stress on an individual.
We’re going to work each day not knowing what we’re going to be seeing.
‘Of course, we’ve all had shifts where we’re totally exhausted, feeling vulnerable because we’re going to work each day not knowing what we’re going to be seeing. And we’ve also got our own family lives back at home, along with the difficulties of the restrictions. It’s definitely been challenging, but everyone has pulled together – doctors, nurses, cleaners. And then of course we got additional support from Clap For Carers and all the fundraising that’s been going on – that’s been a real morale boost and has lifted spirits a bit.’
Do you have a lot of anxiety around bringing the virus out of the wards and back home?
‘Absolutely, yes. My daughter and I don’t live together, but when we first heard we were going to go into lockdown, we considered moving in together for support. But then I just thought, no, I can’t do that, because I was concerned about bringing it home. I’ve had colleagues who’ve actually lived away from their families during most of the lockdown, because they were so concerned about taking it back to their family.’
I’ve had colleagues who’ve actually lived away from their families during most of the lockdown.
That must be such an added layer of sadness – being on the frontline, and yet not being able to be with your loved ones.
‘It was incredibly difficult. There was a lot of FaceTime going on with family and friends, but it was really hard. And then I became ill as well – I think I had COVID – so I had all that going on, too. I’m usually quite fit – I work out a lot, have quite a healthy lifestyle and I’ve never been really poorly – but I was very ill. I had chest pains, a temperature – quite a lot of the symptoms.’
You must have faced considerable stress and pressure, and also witnessed a lot of trauma. Do you feel your mental health has been impacted?
‘Yes, I must say that it has. I have accessed a counsellor and I know the NHS are supporting staff – that the resources are there. I just hope that people choose to access these services, because everybody needs a little bit of support from time to time – I think even more so now, with what we’re dealing with day in day out. You can only process so much on your own or with your colleagues, and it’s not good to just keep burying things away, because one day it will come back out.’
As a nurse, you obviously wear full PPE. How difficult is it to work in?
We’re always in PPE now. The masks are tight. They rub. We do have barrier creams and little wound dressings that we can put beneath the masks to stop them rubbing our faces, but but they still hurt. And we’ve got these long gowns on all day, which are hot. You can’t hear anything, either, so you can’t communicate properly. Having a normal conversation through a vizor and mask it really hard. You feel like you’re always shouting. I sometimes think that when I come home, I’m still shouting! It makes the job so much more difficult, and it’s more tiring as well, wearing PPE.’
Lockdown is easing at the moment. How do you feel about this, given that you’ve seen firsthand how the virus is affecting people?
I think psychologically we do need this easing of restrictions. I don’t think people can continue with the measures that were imposed. They were quite rightly strict, but there has to be a little bit of easing up now.
‘I do think that the majority of people have been amazing – they have really stuck with the hand washing and the social distancing. I just think it’s now really important that we continue with it and not lose sight of the fact that COVID is still here.
It’s really important that we continue with it and not lose sight of the fact that COVID is still here.
‘Of course, some people are also asymptomatic – they might not know they’ve got it – and I think that’s where the difficulty comes from. Seeing those pictures of people on the beaches recently was hard to see look at. I do understand people’s frustrations, but we all have to realise that the threat is still here, and we all have to take a little bit of responsibility. It’s vital that we all keep following the Government guidelines of hand washing and social distancing. The guidelines are there for a reason.’