Palpitations. Sweating. A knot in my stomach. Restless nights.
I’ve been experiencing all these symptoms recently because my thoughts are increasingly dominated by the impending winter.
I am an advanced clinical practitioner (ACP) in A&E and I, along with all my colleagues who work in healthcare and who have been through a winter in the NHS, know what’s on the horizon. Every year in January and February, newspaper headlines and TV bulletins are dominated by pictures of overcrowded A&Es.
Typically we see more presentations of flu, an exacerbation of respiratory conditions, and sepsis. We treat 80-something-year-olds who fall over and break their hip, and vulnerable people who have no home or no money to pay the heating bills. This year, on top of our normal workload, we also have COVID-19 to contend with.
We made it through the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, and NHS staff have been left with mixed feelings of relief and grief. We are relieved because it could have been much worse; the health service wasn’t overwhelmed. We learned how to adapt our working lives and work environments, as well as how to recognise the virus and manage it better. We are better prepared.
But, how many of us are still reeling from what we went through? We saw so much death and suffering and it was unlike anything we’ve had to deal with before. Have we had time to reflect on the overwhelming loss of life? Some people who died – colleagues, patients, family members – were close to us after all. Grief comes back and punches you in the stomach when you least expect it.
Healthcare professionals across the country are exhausted – with many nurses leaving the profession. Lots are off sick with stress or living with worsening mental health problems, while others are reducing their hours in an attempt to create a better work-life balance. Nurse retention has been a problem for years and the NHS is short-staffed.
This year’s batch of newly-qualified nurses, fresh out of university, will soon begin their induction into our A&E. I was in the same position eight years ago. I was excited and filled with a rush of adrenalin to be starting my career in the emergency department. It was what I had always wanted.
My first official shift was on Christmas Eve – eight years ago. Christmas and winter was different to how it is now. Since then, records on the daily number of attendances to A&E have been smashed over and over again.
This year, we’ve got the second wave of a pandemic to manage on top of this. It’s no wonder that many are filled with fear and anxiety at what lies ahead.
Somehow I’m hopeful, however. I work with an incredible team of people made up of cleaners, emergency department assistants, clinical support workers, nurses, doctors, ACPs, physician associates, and more. I know that it will be the team that will get us through as we stand in solidarity and fight to protect our patients.
Louise Curtis has co-authored a book with leading journalist Sarah Johnson.