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What the pandemic has taught me: Nursing during Covid-19

In the first instalment of the series, Henry Waddon talks to healthcare professionals about their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The past year-and-a-half has been incredibly difficult for all of us. Amongst the many difficulties brought about by the pandemic, our relationships with our home, our work, and the people we love have been tested and forcibly reshaped. This is perhaps, most true for our healthcare professionals who were never afforded the option of working from home and have often had to put their own health at risk in protecting their patients. In turn, they have had to carry the weight of the previous shift home with them each day, fearful of imposing this burden onto both the physical and psychological wellbeing of the people they love. 

In this series of articles, we will be asking a range of healthcare professionals about their experiences of the pandemic, and what the past eighteen months has taught them. In doing so, we hope to provide a space for these individuals to articulate both the highs and lows of their work and, if at all, how this period of intense change has altered their views on their career.

Today, we’re listening to nurses. 

Across a series of interviews with members of the nursing profession (many of whom had come out of retirement in order to support overstretched local health services throughout the pandemic), perspectives on the last eighteen months varied significantly. When asked whether the pandemic had changed their perspective on their work, focus shifted between the practicalities of the nursing profession and onto the broader issue of the (mal)treatment of nurses working within our healthcare services. 

While some noted how COVID-induced changes to nursing practices meant that they now missed “speaking to people, and being given the privilege of supporting individuals within their own homes”, others had learnt “how much, as nurses, we put ourselves at risk”, and also, “how fragile life really is”. Responses also detailed how the pandemic had made working life more difficult, referencing how the enforced changes to nursing practices had made nursing “less patient centred” and had “taken focus off a lot of essential care needs”, with one respondent describing how the pandemic had “highlighted the desperate need for safe staffing levels in the NHS”, and how current staffing shortages were exacerbating difficulties and shortcomings in addressing these essential care needs.

On this note of how the pandemic has altered the nurse-patient dynamic, we were also keen to ask these individuals how they felt the pandemic may have changed the public’s perspective on their work. It was striking how responses to this question frequently centred around the ‘Clap For Our Carers’. Individuals described how the first night of this scheme (designed to showcase the public’s appreciation for healthcare professionals) was “spine chilling”, and was “appreciated” by nursing staff. However, the sentiment of many was that this act encapsulated a wider issue in the experiences of nursing professionals: a respondent noted how they were aware that this appreciation “would not last”. At times, this same split-feeling also existed in discussing public perspectives in the broader context of the pandemic as a whole. To illustrate, many nurses expressed how the pandemic had led the public to “value the NHS as a whole, now more than ever”, to “understand the difficulties faced in the NHS” and to have a “new awareness and appreciation” for the nursing profession. 

Simultaneously, other individuals described how “people will soon forget about nurses and carers, as they struggle to ensure their own survival in a post pandemic recession”, how nurses had, on occasion, been used as “scapegoats”. Others spoke of how the growing public perception that “healthcare workers are angels” may not be helpful in ensuring that people fully grasp the human, emotional realities of the nursing profession and how nurses cannot possibly have remained untouched and unaffected by all that this last eighteen months has enforced upon us. It was also hugely poignant and informative to hear how the infallibility and resolve of the nurses we spoke to had been tested beyond professional boundaries. When discussing the hardest moments of the pandemic, many individuals spoke of the pain of loss: of patients, of colleagues and of old work friends. 

In spite of the many difficulties faced across the pandemic, when asked what advice they would offer to a young person that currently plans and aspires to pursue a career in nursing, responses were resoundingly consistent. They expressed that although it can be tough, it’s an incredible and important career: “Embrace it – but it’s difficult”, said one individual. Respondents also wanted to highlight the importance of interdependence and helping one another; answers conveyed how it’s integral that you “don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and colleagues” and that “mental health is priceless and should come first”.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s demonstrated who we instinctively turn to for support through our darkest moments. Across this hugely challenging and sad time, we’ve relied on nurses to keep us, and our loved ones, safe. We can only hope that in reflecting on these insights, we may respond to future difficulties that the profession will face (unjustly low pay, staff shortages and incidences of patient abuse to name a few) with empathy and support, and therein help to improve the day-to-day experiences of these individuals, for the benefit of us all. 

Thank you to all the nurses that have worked so hard throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to protect our health and wellbeing.

Image Credit: Alberto Giuliani / CC BY-SA 4.0

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