Wexham Park Hospital,
Berkshire, United Kingdom
This essay is part of our new series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
The news came by email:
It felt like a suicide mission. But if I was being sent to the trenches, surely I would at least be given adequate protection…
I didn’t want to tell loved ones for fear they’d panic. Colleagues across the globe had died, others teetered on the precipice. No matter what hospital middle management may say, healthcare workers make up a significant proportion of the patients treated for the virus worldwide, and the numbers in the UK are growing.
I did not want to become a statistic.
I tried to allay my trepidation by reminding myself of friends already on the front line, some of whom had even volunteered to be there.
I should be brave like them.
It was part of the job: our vocation to serve. I was not alone in my fears.
When one of my seniors told me that she was worried, that she felt like she was sending some of us out to die, my feelings were validated. It was the first acknowledgement from authority that we were putting our lives at risk. I came into this profession to save lives. I never considered having to sacrifice my own.
When I naively inquired about the guidelines on personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS staff, each word in reply felt like another nail in my coffin. Was it optimistic to expect that joining the front line would change the provisions we would receive? I was informed that they would follow local protocol, which would in turn align with “national standards.” National standards, which had fluctuated, been diluted and at various times were out of step with both the World Health Organisation and Europe. Which begs the question whether standards stem from scientific evidence or instead, simply trade health protection for resource efficiency.
I questioned whether my fear was selfish, and whether now is the time for utilitarianism, not individualism. I had a moral obligation.
But I did not want to die. I am not expendable. I am not cannon fodder.
We are all watching as history is being made: social norms warping, generations being defined, humanity being shaped before our eyes. Despite having watched the disease arrive and linger in other nations, there was a hope (or rather complacency) that these epidemiological trends would not apply to us in England. Biology would show some innate favouritism towards us. A cocktail of arrogance and idleness, with a dash of ineptitude, guaranteed we (our leaders) would not act when required. We would not respond to the pandemic unfolding before us.
When I arrived on the scene I was inspired by those already serving. Nurses, maintaining the dignity of the marked or adjusting the settings on patients’ ventilators. My seniors told me to stay back, don’t enter: reduce unnecessary contact.
Meanwhile, they went ahead alone to assess the status of the deteriorating patients. Yet amongst this bravery, the air remained thick with the unease of droplets housing the invisible virus. Unease at the strain we faced, and that which is to come.
And still the question remains: why isn’t there enough PPE? Masks are being reused, putting us at risk or worse, making us vectors, spreading the disease we war against.
The resigned whispers of “supply chain issues” are ubiquitous. It is clear and unspoken that everyone working on these wards has accepted their fate, whether that means life or death from COVID-19. Because there is no alternative. The patients cannot be left to die because of a discrepancy between supply and demand. Our reason for joining this profession is what allows us (even compels us) to continue despite the risk to ourselves. So I have to accept my fate.
Applause or no applause, we will keep going.
Dele is a surgical trainee (resident) in otolaryngology, now redeployed to the intensive care unit. He works at Wexham Park Hospital, Berkshire.