Working at Nightingale doesn’t make me a hero, I was just doing my job

People stopped having sex very abruptly when lockdown started and as a sexual health adviser at Soho’s 56 Dean Street clinic, I was getting to work to find there wasn’t much to do.

So when I received a trust-wide invitation to re-deploy to the Nightingale hospital at the ExCel Centre, I decided to volunteer – I thought it would be a better use of my time and skills to go where I was most needed.

The induction day at the start of April was the first time I had ever been to Nightingale. We were trained in the various ways we would have to care for patients, and I was invited to start work the following week when the ward officially opened.

Seeing rows and rows of beds and ventilators was frightening. My mind skipped ahead to what it would be like if they were filled up with patients; it was incredibly daunting to think about.

Initially, I was placed with the physiotherapy team, helping to wash and turn the patients – all of whom were unconscious. We needed to move them to help with their oxygen levels and breathing.

After a couple weeks, I was assigned to two patients specifically, working as part of a team that included an ICU doctor, ICU nurse and a registered nurse. I was a runner, collecting items from stores, keeping the patients clean, changing the bedding, writing down the observations from their ventilators and monitors – and doing anything I was asked. It was a very intensive form of nursing care.

At its busiest, there were 57 patients in Nightingale. Of them, 20 died. The others either woke up, were moved to other hospitals, or were transferred to be treated for non-coronavirus-related health conditions.

My patients were quite anonymous to begin with. We knew their names and statistics but without family visitors, there wasn’t much information to go on and there was obviously no way of having a conversation.

After a couple of weeks, the family liaison officer started putting up photos and messages from family by patients’ beds, which we would read aloud. I don’t know whether they could hear in their unconscious states but it helped me to form a relationship with each one, and build up a picture of who they were.

It made the situation more real – this was somebody’s husband, somebody’s wife. That person had children, another worked as a care provider.

The way we cared for them didn’t change – that had always been excellent from the start. But it struck me that those who died weren’t going back to the relatives who were writing in, and those relatives wouldn’t be able to see them in their last few days.

It was emotionally draining to realise that you were someone’s last contact and most of us found that we were extra loving and caring for that very reason. Knowing that the job was temporary helped to focus on the day-to-day and do what was necessary to help the patients get through the experience.

I was asked to stay at Nightingale for six weeks and ended up doing seven. Towards the end it became obvious that the hospital wasn’t going to carry on – other intensive care units around London were coping and as patients recovered, they weren’t replaced.

Not long after I finished, my friend Debbieanne called to say she had something to tell me. There had been a shout-out on social media looking for ‘heroes’ and she had nominated me by submitting a photo. Now she needed to know if I was happy for it to appear on a billboard. I had 24 hours to give her an answer.

Of course, I told her, it was fine to go ahead – I don’t think of myself as a hero at all so I found it all quite funny.

I had wondered whether I should tell anyone about working at Nightingale but ultimately concluded that there was a false modesty in not saying anything.

I just wish I had understood it wasn’t just one billboard – it was nationwide and the picture they used was one I sent to Debbieanne to show her how messy my hair was.

But the reason it was a mess was because I had just taken off my surgical cap after a shift. It wasn’t well-cut because like everyone else, I haven’t been able to visit a hairdresser for eight weeks.

Looking at it, I realised the picture sums up my experience of the pandemic. I was asked to do a job, and I could do it, so I did. So many of us are in the same boat.

I am back working at Dean Street now and would like to say thank you to Debbieanne – not just for the nomination but for checking up on me.

For texting me to see how I was on a Sunday evening when she knew I’d finished a 13-hour night shift. For asking if I wanted to talk, and for being understanding on the days when I didn’t. She is an incredible friend.