NHS doctor reveals heartbreaking reality of working on a COVID-19 ward: 'I've never seen so much death'
Junior NHS doctor Sophie Blackburn has never seen so many people die since she started her job five years ago. "Hopefully, I never will again," she tells me. "It's like having a natural disaster, but over a drawn-out period of time."
The 28-year-old has struggled with her mental health throughout the course of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and she believes that there will "most definitely" be long term implications for NHS staff.
The second wave of the pandemic
Sophie says that this wave of the pandemic has started off "really tough", despite the NHS having more evidence based-knowledge and greater supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The issue, she says, is staffing.
"There's one thing having equipment and ventilators, but you need staff who know how to use them. And by that, I mean more nurses. They're working so hard, they're awfully paid, and not appreciated at all."
"My job is harder when I have tired and despondent nurses. We see how nurses are suffering. They're the closest to the deaths, and they're speaking to families all the time. They just don't have the right support."
Working on the Covid-19 effort has also left Sophie "demoralised". While she has been offered counselling, she has been unable to take it due to her workload.
We haven't really had time to process it," the NHS doctor states. "But debriefing in the middle of a pandemic isn't always helpful. Right now we can't do anything but keep going. I don't think I would be able to cope if I had to expose all of my emotions and talk about it."
Instead, exercise – and in particular – running have been a helpful outlet for Sophie, as well as the support of her colleagues and friends who work in the medical sector. She explains that it can be "too much" on those who don't work in the NHS, and that speaking about it to them can make them feel "helpless".
Mental health issues within the NHS
According to a new study by researchers at King's College London, many NHS staff were left traumatised after treating COVID patients during the first wave.
Some 709 workers took part in the survey with almost half reporting symptoms of severe anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or problem drinking.
In addition, one in seven said they have experienced thoughts of self-harm or thinking they would be "better off dead".
NHS data shows that in the midst of the first waves, sickness rates for NHS England healthcare workers were at their highest point in a decade.
The most common reasons behind this were anxiety, stress, depression, or other mental illness - as reported by 20.9 per cent of staff on leave.
'It makes you feel so helpless'
Opening up about her own mental health struggles, Sophie recalls one incident that was particularly challenging during the first wave. She recounts how between March, April and May, hospitals in London were very strict about who could be admitted to intensive care.
The Senior House Officer was on shift when a 50-year-old mother came in for Covid-19 with Type 1 diabetes, which is linked to poor Covid outcomes. Her consultant proceeded to place the individual in question on a Do Not Resuscitate order, which meant she could not be admitted to the ICU if her condition deteriorated.
"We were putting DNR forms in so early back then, because we were really pressured with beds, equipment and nurses. So we were only selecting people that we knew had a better chance of survival."
Tragically, the woman ended up passing away, despite Sophie and her colleagues pressing for her to be admitted to the ICU. "It was really sudden, and hard. I had to phone her sister, and her 21-year-old daughter. It just makes you feel so helpless."
Sophie's advice to the public
"I'm lucky to have amazing colleagues, and we always try to stay upbeat. Us medics are known for having a dark sense of humour. It's the attitude of 'if I don't laugh I'll cry'. And you need it, especially when it's 5 AM, and your beeper won't stop going off, and there's nothing you can do for the patients who need help."
Naturally then, she finds it "frustrating" when she hears people denouncing the pandemic as a "hoax".
"I don't know what to do about them," she says, "They've made up their mind, and unless I drag them into the ICU with me, they're not going to change it."
Generally, however, the general public have been "absolutely wonderful".
"People are so sweet when they find out you're a doctor or work for the NHS. I've been getting discounts and little things without even having to say anything."
But still, Sophie's advice for everyone remains the same: "wear a face mask and social distance - especially if you are high risk," because, she stresses, "it works".