Queen’s Nurse Su Chantry writes about her experience returning to the NHS during Covid-19

I work as an occupational health manager at Williams Grand Prix Engineering. I have a degree in public health nursing and am registered on part 3 of the NMC register as a SCPHN Occupational health. I also have my own occupational health business supporting the health and wellbeing of local small and medium businesses.

My recent work in occupational health has been focused very much on the public health and infection risk management of the Covid-19 crisis, however after the lockdown and social distancing guidelines on 23rd March, much of the clinical facing occupational health work has stopped. My 15-year career in occupational health has always been in the private sector and my NHS memories are fond but in a long distant past.

There was a call out campaign for clinical staff to assist the NHS and retired nurses were called back to nursing. As an active registrant I felt I had to assist my NHS colleagues and applied through the rapid response recall service to work. I think many of us in the private sector felt the same. Four weeks ago, I was fast tracked back into the NHS and have been redeployed back onto the wards at the John Radcliffe to assist my colleagues.

I list my availability weekly and there are up to 60 shifts per day listed. An hour before my shift I am allocated to a ward. This has ranged from general medicine, orthopaedics, cardiac critical care and acute respiratory wards. All the wards have covid positive patients. The hospital is eerily quiet, no visitors, no outpatients, the everyday hustle and bustle of a hospital corridor is silent.

It’s been an enlightening return to the wards. Each ward I arrive on I feel like the new girl. I arrive proudly wearing my ID attached to my Queen’s Nurse lanyard, but this has to be discarded as soon as I change into my scrubs. None of the adornments we nurses like to wear are allowed – no badges, no lanyards, no name badges: the infection control measures strictly applied. I have not witnessed any shortage of PPE where I have been working.

I’ve sat and held a scared middle-aged patient’s hand as he has wept at the reality of just how sick he had been and just how thankful he was to the nurses and doctors who were caring for him.

Su Chantry, QN, Specialist Practitioner in Occupational Health

We are all veiled in surgical masks and non-verbal eye communication at two metre distances has been heightened in the Covid_19 crisis: I find myself winking and nodding to convey my positive willingness to assist. It takes up to 15 minutes to don level 2 PPE and that in itself is exhausting. Time of dressing is logged by the senior nurse who allocates break time on the nurse board to ensure you do not overtire. Even donning off is exhausting and time consuming. The relief to be free of the kit is uplifting, but the dread of knowing you have to put it all on again soon is bubbling away while you try to quench your insatiable thirst in the break.

The technology has moved on so far from my traditional days of ward work in the 1990s – that’s been a challenge. But the nursing process has not changed. On some wards I have been allocated my own case load, other wards have reverted to task nursing, just to ensure that all the work on the shift gets done.

I have sat for over an hour with one very agitated patient who was clawing at his CPAP fighting to breathe; he was fighting with every ounce of strength he had against every millilitre of sedation meds the doctor was giving him. I’ve sat and held a scared middle-aged patient’s hand as he has wept at the reality of just how sick he had been and just how thankful he was to the nurses and doctors who were caring for him. I have been chasing my tail on the relentless observations and medication list and I have become as alert as a hawk in watching saturations and respirations as we battle with the virus, and to wean a recovering patient gradually off oxygen. I have dug deep into my critical care nursing memory to remember the multiples of acronyms used in the NHS.

I may not be part of the permanent team but have shared the highs and lows with the amazing staff I have shared a shift with. I leave a gift of funky headbands made by my children to ease sore ears from the straps of PPE – its our little way of saying thanks.

I shower at work, take my food box and go home to a further home decontamination regime to reassure my family; they are my keyworkers and are all staying safely at home.

It’s hard to switch off; as an occupational health specialist nurse I am well aware of the impact this crisis will have on mental health of so many – let alone the nurse colleagues I am working with. I know when I return to my occupational health work this will be a key element of the role occupational health will have in the community.

In the meantime, my Queen’s Nurse lanyard is all set for the next shift.

Su Chantry

BSc Hons SCPHN (OH) Dip HE RGN Queen’s Nurse

Specialist Practitioner in Occupational Health



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