Living and Dying in the Time of Covid-19: A Volunteer Nurse’s Story

TV coverage of the Covid-19 crisis sometimes makes it seem like it’s all about numbers and graphs. Every day we hear about infection rates and death tolls. But it’s really about stories – the stories of real people getting ill and (in too many cases) dying. This is one of my stories as a volunteer nurse in an NHS hospital in the UK.

It was the eve of my 52nd birthday when I received a call from our local hospital asking me to work a shift on my birthday. I had been a nurse for 8 years in the early 1990s, so I accepted without hesitation. On arrival to the staffing area, I found the old staff room had been turned into a staff protective area. The doors and windows to the main hospital had been sealed up and there were boxes of waterproof gowns and protective clothing for those on the frontline. All other staff had basic PPE. We hesitantly checked our names on the rota to find out if we were going to be stationed on the first, second or third line of support. My name was listed under first line. Honestly, that made me feel anxious and a bit scared. But I headed to the PPE area and put on my gown, FFP (filtering facepiece) and gloves. We all checked each other’s protective outfits and made our way to the ambulance admission area to start of our shift.

After a lengthy handover we immediately got to work. Patients were arriving by the minute and I could tell that many were far more terrified than me. I could see a look of horror in their eyes when they saw our protective clothing. The fact that they were alone with no family members with them was making things worse. I immediately reached out either to touch them (with my gloved hands) or hold their hand to offer a warm human interaction while the doctors assessed them. It was hot, busy and uncomfortable in the clothing. It was also hard to breathe. But the adrenaline took over.

I have a number of shocking and heartbreaking stories from that day, but one stands out. After a couple of hours on the main floor of the Covid-19 ward one member of the nursing staff asked me to leave the ward to observe a patient in a side room. On entering the room I saw a man in his early 50s, about the same age as myself. He looked tired, his breathing wasn’t good and he seemed to be in shock. I introduced myself and told him that my aim was to cheer him up and to look after his every need. He managed a half smile. I sat down and held his hand. He told me he was a banker at a large international bank in Canary Wharf and he had no idea how he’d caught the virus. He said that he had everything that money can buy, a lovely home, a good car, a career and children but that he would never see them again if he didn’t get out of hospital. I told him a little about my life and he talked about his plans for the future and the possibility of him not leaving the hospital. I found some paper and a pen and I wrote down all his thoughts, wishes and dreams so that I could share it with a person of his choice.

After about an hour, the medical team came in to check him and I went out of the room. When they left, I was told that his sepsis infection was shutting down his organs and there was literally nothing that could be done. He had a few hours to live. I went back into the room to be with him. He seemed to be struggling to believe what was happening to him. He was frustrated. Why had this happened? How had this happened? Where did he catch this virus? Why him? He was 52, healthy and successful. He wanted answers, but as he talked, he realized that the answers didn’t matter. Even if he could find the answers they couldn’t change what was happening.

I knew he felt alone and all I wanted to do was to offer some warmth and comfort by holding his hand and talking to him. He spoke about his teenage children and what would become of them. I told him about my recent divorce and he told me about his divorce and how much he couldn’t stand his ex-wife. He even had time for a joke. Turning to me he said “things could have been a lot worse today, you know”. I asked how he could possibly come to that conclusion and he said, “Well, I could have been stuck in this room with my ex-wife or a nun, but I was lucky enough to get you.”

After four hours of comforting him and rubbing his back, he started to struggle with pain, so the doctors decided to sedate him to make him more comfortable. As one last act of kindness he asked me to tell his ex-wife that he loved her, even though he didn’t, because he said he wanted her to have fonder memories.

He died 26 mins later and my notes were passed to his family.

The shift was long and arduous, it was life changing and rewarding to be part of a talented and brave medical team, to hold the hand of such a special person as he passed peacefully, and to be part of history and the NHS efforts as a whole.

Laura Cook

Laura Cook works in publishing in London. Previously, she was a nurse. From February to the end of May 2020 she was a voluntary bank nurse for the NHS in London.