After watching so many news reports of exhausted healthcare workers on the front line, when the opportunity arose for me to help out in a support role, I jumped at the chance. Of course, I had fears about contracting COVID-19 or infecting my family but I believed that if I had a safe and systematic way of coming in to or out of the hospital, I could minimise the risk.
Medical students from QUB (Queen’s University, Belfast), received an email asking if they were interested in volunteering, what trust we could work in and any specific specialty we were interested in supporting.
I have a particular interest in surgery, so I applied to help out in general surgery in the Ulster Hospital as a medical student technician. After being accepted as a volunteer we had an initial training day that included learning how to spot signs of patient deterioration, clinical features of COVID-19, PPE (personal protective equipment) and clinical skills. Our role would be to support our fellow healthcare professionals on the ward by taking bloods, ECGs, observations, etc. We were told, however, that the COVID-19 crisis in Northern Ireland was thankfully not as grave as anticipated and therefore we would not be contracted for many hours per week. We all looked forward, however, to getting some clinical experience.
I must admit, after going to the training day, learning about PPE, going to get fit-tested for my mask, getting my very own scrubs, I was very excited. I really missed being on the wards as our placements had been suspended and was keen to help out.
On my first day on the job, I was very anxious. I cannot count the number of times I washed my hands! I had arrived at the hospital in my own clothes and changed into scrubs, washed my hands, donned gloves and a gown and got started. Admittedly, I was expecting the ward to resemble some sort of war zone or scene from what I had witnessed on the news. In reality, there were really only minor differences apart from the staff wearing PPE and everyone standing further apart.
My anxiety increased, however, when I was getting ready to go home. What was the best way to protect myself and my family? I changed into my own clothes in the hospital changing room, careful to put my scrubs in a plastic bag, ready for a high temperature wash when I got home. Once I arrived home, it was a long, thorough, hot, shower.
I am really glad that I volunteered during the pandemic. The experience of working as part of the team in surgery has confirmed that this is the specialty for me. I have learnt how COVID-19 will have transformed medicine for many years to come. I have learnt about the resilience of our healthcare workers, who don’t work for the publicity, glamour or claps on a Thursday night – they work because it is what they were called to do.