I remember first hearing about COVID and trying to understand how it would affect us here in the UK. As I watched the virus spread across the world, edging ever closer to our shores, ravaging countries like Italy, I could feel my anxiety levels rising. And then it came. Infection levels rose, rotas were suspended, annual and study leave cancelled, exams were cancelled, redeployment ensued... As someone who likes to plan and anticipate future problems, a novel virus and the uncertainties surrounding it definitely began to take their toll on me.
Early in the pandemic I was reassigned to geriatrics and spent a lot of my time on the ‘red’ geriatrics wards (a ward where everyone had a confirmed COVID diagnosis). There were quite a few discussions about which level of PPE we should be wearing because many of us did not feel safe in the standard apron, gloves, face mask and visor. The reason for this was because many patients on the red geriatrics wards suffered from conditions such as dementia and sometimes did not know or understand that they had COVID. Subsequently, they did not understand the social distancing or isolation implications that came with such a diagnosis. I remember one patient in particular who frequently managed to sneak up behind you and hug you or run their fingers through your hair. This was a friendly gesture on their part, but as you can imagine extremely anxiety-inducing for us.
Other challenges in geriatrics included communicating with patients with dementia, delirium or any other cognitive impairment. For someone who is already disorientated, having a healthcare professional loom over you in a face mask and visor can be quite scary! Additionally, I found it extremely difficult emotionally when patients deteriorated and came to the end of their life without having their loved ones there to support them.
As a black doctor with a black family, the constant reminder of the impact of COVID on our communities was a continuous source of worry. For example, I spent a lot of time worrying about my mother, a mental health social worker in her 60s. As a keyworker, she was still going to work everyday and thoughts of her catching COVID from the office or a patient often crossed my mind. I did not see my family for a significant period of time because I was concerned that I could pass COVID on to them. As well as worry and anxiety surrounding COVID and communities of colour, I felt a deep sense of frustration, anger and injustice. Why were we being affected so disproportionately? Was anyone going to take this seriously? People of colour make up a large proportion of frontline workers in this country - we have literally been dying for this country. Our concerns and welfare must be taken seriously.
The past few years have been a strange and difficult time for us all and I could not have gotten through it without the love and support of my family, friends, and incredible colleagues. Although I am hopeful that we will soon emerge from this crisis, as a country with a high death toll I pray that lessons will be learnt, and victims not forgotten.