We had been watching what had been happening in China and Italy, so we felt we had adequate time to prepare for what was coming our way. We divided the emergency department up into different areas – COVID and non-COVID – then prepared our staff to deal with cases we expected to attend and how to use personal protective equipment correctly.
Thankfully redeployed doctors came to work with us from departments such as radiology and elsewhere. We set to work training with them on dealing with emergency care patients and our different systems and processes.
There was a real sense of a calm before the storm in the emergency department as the public was staying away at the start of the pandemic. We took advantage of that period to keep training ourselves and other staff. We ran drills on intubation and ventilation and familiarised ourselves with equipment that we may need to use. We looked at different case scenarios trying to anticipate what our department may need. But it was certainly a very anxious time for us especially about catching the virus and bringing it home to our families.
My husband is a GP and we have three children who were watching all the news reports of what was happening and were very worried about their parents working on the front line of it all. We did our best to reassure them but I myself got coronavirus and that caused a lot of worry for my family. Fortunately, I was able to stay at home for the duration of my illness and made a full recovery.
Trauma and stroke patients never went away in terms of presenting to emergency care, they continued to appear throughout the pandemic, which was a relief. Over the past month things have got back to being very busy again. Things are made more difficult by trying to social distance either in the waiting room or when dealing with ambulances. That’s something we’re trying to get on top of as the old ways of doing things – packed waiting rooms, the high footfall of patients that access the emergency department and patients waiting on trolleys – has to change as it is not safe for health service staff or patients.
People in Northern Ireland have been really good about staying at home, hand washing, social distancing and this is shown in our low number of COVID cases and fatalities compared with the rest of the UK. But like a lot of my colleagues, I am still concerned about a second wave, especially as the months move towards autumn and wintertime when there are usually more respiratory problems around.
We cannot afford to be complacent. We need to look at new and better ways for patients and GPs to access hospital services. I am concerned there are many people who have not visited their GP about ongoing health problems, and we may see another kind of wave - undiagnosed cancers and untreated illnesses that will have a detrimental effect on our population. However, I do know we have a very dedicated medical workforce in Northern Ireland who have already shown that they can step up in a crisis to help our patients. Hopefully we can do so again.
Siobhan Quinn, an associate specialist in emergency medicine at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital