Occupational health on the coronavirus frontline – ‘I have been on an acute medical Covid ward’

An emergency Covid ward. Gill Furber says of her NHS work: "The patients are worried, scared, poorly and in need of the care I was taught to deliver years ago." Image: Shutterstock

During August, we have been telling the stories of occupational health nurses who have come to the aid of the hard-pressed NHS during the coronavirus crisis. For our final story, we hear from specialist OH nurse practitioner Gill Furber.

I am used to donning my smart skirt, top and heels and driving around the UK to my contracts to provide occupational health. I am a specialist nurse practitioner in occupational health and, like most of us in OH, my work towards the end of March was decimated as factories had to close their doors and furlough their staff.

Although I still had a couple of large food production companies to continue to support during these challenging times, it still meant I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. I had to make a decision about whether I spend my time at home pruning the roses and re-organising my kitchen cupboards or answer the email that I received from the NMC about returning to the frontline!

After a telephone conversation with a friend who still works in acute medicine on the NHS “frontline”, the decision to return seemed to me to be the most perfectly natural thing to do.

Prior to leaving the NHS to work in OH, I had been an A&E sister as well as working within ICU. I simply could not sit at home doing nothing knowing that my nursing colleagues were struggling.

It was important I involved the most important people around me with my decision-making, and the support I had from my two grown-up children and my partner was wonderful.

Their only concern was the PPE issue, but I reassured them I would not put myself in harm’s way. The support I received from my wider family was just as supportive, but it would be remiss of me if I did not say that the companies I was still working for as an OH nurse practitioner were also, without exception, supportive and sent me the most amazing messages during that time, and continue to do so.

So, I completed my application and started the process of returning to the NHS. I set about carrying familiarising myself various new and unfamiliar abbreviations, learned as much as I could about Covid-19, and how clinical staff these days recorded everything on the ward. After all, I came from a time when the notes were hand-written and observations were recorded manually!

I joined through the rapid response recall service and NHS Professionals staff bank (NHSP) and, as soon as clearance was given, I was shocked at how many shifts were available for the trusts where I would be working. On any one given day, there would be at least 190 shifts available all over the north west and in every setting.

I also underwent an induction at the Birmingham Nightingale Hospital. I was advised by NHSP that I would need to bring my own uniform and realised, to my horror, I no longer had one. Luckily I discovered our village’s Women’s Institute had been involved in “Sewing for the NHS” initiative.

I put a call out on our village Facebook site to them and, amazingly, within 24 hours I had a set of scrubs, washbag and head band. Tucked inside the scrubs was a lovely card from the WI thanking for me for my NHS work; really lovely and the card travels in my rucksack with me every time I go to the hospital.

The night before my first shift on an acute medical Covid ward was an exceedingly difficult one. My dreams were wracked with images of me being frog-marched off the ward by the police and put in the back of a van with a blanket over my head for causing untold chaos!

This could not be further from the truth and when I arrived, the staff were aware of my years away from the wards and this did not bother them at all. After a whistle-stop tour of the ward, I was allocated my patients for the day and my task was to support the staff nurse for the whole of my shift.

I was introduced to the new world of donning and doffing of PPE. For the first half of my shift, I dropped things, bumped into everyone, kept getting the donning and doffing in the wrong order, had to keep asking for directions to clinical rooms and the sluice.

Gradually as the shift progressed, I started to relax and the skills I had never lost returned. I found myself carrying out more and more technical tasks, including ECGs and inputting the data from the observations that I had carried out into the computer.

I was able to continue with the one-to-one care with my four coronavirus-positive gents to allow the staff nurse to have a break. I found out their backgrounds and, within a very short space of time, I was referred to as “the posh Brummie” (I hadn’t got the heart to tell them I am actually from Wolverhampton).

What made me realise I had made the right decision was from when one of them, whose wife had died the previous day on another ward, said to me: “Don’t leave, stay with me” just as I was about to doff the PPE. So, I did and while I helped him to drink his brew, we sang some rude songs together and he said, “you’re not a posh Brummie after all”.

At the end of that first shift I left the ward exhausted, sad, relieved that I got through it without any catastrophes, but with a feeling that I had done something so unbelievably rewarding

At the end of that first shift I left the ward exhausted, sad, relieved that I got through it without any catastrophes, but with a feeling that I had done something so unbelievably rewarding.

And as the days have progressed, and the more shifts I have worked, so I have been able to do more and more and as well as carrying more and more clinical procedures. I can now confidently do drug rounds and deliver the handover to the night shift at the end of the day.

It is tough and it is sad but really, nursing is nursing; the abbreviations may be a little like another language and not having to hold a mercury thermometer under the tongue for three minutes is something be applauded. But the patients are still the same – worried, scared, poorly and in need of the type of care that I was taught to deliver many years ago.

My one resolve is that, when this is all done and we get back to something like normal, I will continue with my bank work because there are always going to be patients who need someone to sing rude songs to them in the middle of the night when they are frightened.

Gill Furber’s story is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in OH Today, the publication of iOH (The Association of Occupational Health and Wellbeing Professionals), which can be found at https://ioh.org.uk/oh-today/

3 Responses to Occupational health on the coronavirus frontline – ‘I have been on an acute medical Covid ward’

  1. Avatar
    Jane Jones 6 Sep 2020 at 11:40 am #

    Nothing but true admiration for my lovely clever kind compassionate, funny friend. You did us all proud! Thanks Gill x

  2. Avatar
    Geri 7 Sep 2020 at 3:05 pm #

    An inspiring piece, proud you Gill, you mentioned the sluice and it brought back memories of the times we used to nip down to the sluice for a cheeky fag 😂we’ll done my darling xxx

    • Avatar
      Gill Furber 9 Sep 2020 at 5:14 pm #

      Geri, I remember it so well!
      Thank you ❤️❤️

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