COVID-19: my year on the front line

by Stephen Kelly

The personal and professional effects of the pandemic have caused a great sense of fatigue and triggered thoughts about next steps


Location: Wales
Published: Thursday 25 March 2021
stephen kelly

I’m in the office. Until a couple of weeks ago that was rare. I look out of the window and wonder what I should do next?

My father passed away during the pandemic last May and like so many relatives of the patients I have been looking after I was not allowed to visit him in the last weeks he was in, even though I could see his ward from this window.

I remember the first case and all the unfamiliar PPE (personal protective equipment) and worry that if you caught the virus you might die, and that this infection was going to be something like Ebola in its risk to medical staff.

I remember well the day when we had seven or eight patients within a couple of hours all needing CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) or ventilation and liaising with my ITU colleagues to make sure we had seen them all and who we could put where. We managed.

I did not really think about the consequences of getting COVID but like dominoes nearly all of my colleagues became ill one after the other. When my wife and I became unwell, I could not help but think that my family had not signed up for the risk and it made it hard to understand why the precautionary principle was not used in national PPE guidance. The months of tinnitus my wife had and my prolonged altered sense of smell helped fuel that resentment.

There have been good things to come from COVID. The close working with our local management team to organise how we ran the wards is a legacy we will no doubt benefit from long after COVID is gone. We now have a permanent purpose built non-invasive ventilation ward, a great asset in patient care. The most unexpected had to be how uniformly nice families were when I called them on the phone to discuss their very sick relatives with COVID. That was humbling.

This weekend is the first in a year that we have not needed consultants in to cover COVID and so does mark a sort of end for me. But it’s difficult to think of going back to clinics more with conditions such as chronic cough without wanting to just measure the oxygen saturation and say they are OK and don’t need oxygen or CPAP.

I look at my emails and wonder if I should book into the wellbeing support service? A couple of months ago I probably should have, as was very tired of being here day after day and snappy with my family. I am regretful for that.

COVID has been a tragedy, but it has been exciting too to work in such a different way and it won’t be easy to simply go back to what we did before. I don’t know if I want to though and I am helped by the actions of politicians who can’t afford pay rises even after what we have done and punitive pension charges that don’t make you feel valued.

So I look out of the window aged 52 and think of doing something else. I suspect I have missed the optimum timing of setting up a PPE procurement company so will likely just retire early.

Stephen Kelly is a consultant in respiratory and general internal medicine at Maelor Hospital Wrexham