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In the latest in our series of interviews speaking to members about their experiences during COVID-19, we talk to Julie Painter, Senior Rheumatology Specialist Nurse at the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust. Julie has 30 years experience in nursing, and has spent the last three week redeployed to ICU, caring for COVID-19 patients.

She says: “Six of us from rheumatology across two hospital sites have been redeployed to the intensive care unit, working 11.5 hour shifts, nights and days. I’ve never worked in ICU before, so the trust gave us some additional training, such as learning about ventilators and tracheotomies, the drugs used in ICU, plus how to use the blood gas machine and the blood glucose machine.

“The first day we went in to learn how to don and doff the PPE and learn the layout. Nothing prepared me for what I saw – it’s still a vision in my head. They had over 30 patients at the time and I’ve never seen so many patients so poorly in one place. It was the most shocking thing I’ve seen in over 30 years of nursing.

“I was quite upset when I got home. I just wanted to do a good job and not let anyone down. I’m very experienced at what I do, but not having experienced ICU and not having the knowledge around the clinical decisions; I felt a loss of control in my ability.

“My first shift was a night duty and I hadn’t worked nights for around 16 years, but I was so well supported. The staff in ICU are incredible and it’s amazing what comes back to you. What I’ve learnt over my career and the skills and experience I have means that when you’re put in that situation, it just all comes back to you.

"Communication, compassion and caring are the fundamental skills of being a nurse"

“Communication, compassion and caring are the fundamental skills of being a nurse. It doesn’t matter what environment you’re in, you can still care for the patient. I can make them feel comfortable, even if it’s making their mouth feel fresh, combing someone’s hair or giving them a wash. As a nurse it’s those extra things that you do that can make that difference.

“I’ve been working in ICU for three weeks, supporting the ICU nurses and being their eyes and ears. On my last shift, I looked after someone the same age as me. They were the sickest patient I’d looked after and had to have various interventions. Throughout the day I managed to get them stable and reduce their sedation. The patient’s family called, and we put them on loudspeaker so that the patient could hear them, and the patient nodded their head – it was very emotional. This is what nurses are here for.

"I keep hearing the alarms go off, or I can feel a mask on my face"

“Now I’ve got a few days off to rest but I still can’t sleep properly. I keep hearing the alarms go off, or I can feel a mask on my face, but I’ll get there. I’m going back to my job where I manage the rheumatology nursing team at Cannock Hospital. The Trust has been very supportive as we ease ourselves back into our roles. I’ll be leading the nursing team to develop innovative ways of nursing rheumatology patients in the current climate of COVID-19.

“There’s concern around our newly-diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis patients who we usually see monthly. So, we’re looking at how we can do that as a telephone consultation. Enquiries to our advice line have tripled; patients need attentional support during this time.

“I’m the lead for connective tissue disease, so I’ll be working with our two consultants to keep an eye on our patients. Every 7-10 days I usually go through this list of patients and check whether they’ve had a blood test, whether it’s satisfactory and if not action it. So, I’ll need to find new ways of working with them.

“On a personal level, during this time I’ve learnt that I can still rise to the challenge. I’m stronger than I realise, and my years of experience have supported me working in a new, pressurised environment. As nurses, our clinical expertise, skills and knowledge, and the way we adapt and work together, means we can get through the challenges.”

Huge thanks to Julie and all of those who are sharing their experience of working during the pandemic. A free wellbeing support helpline is available for NHS staff from 7am-11pm seven days a week: call 0300 131 7000 for confidential listening from trained professionals and specialist advice, including coaching, bereavement care, mental health and financial support.