My experience working on the frontline in London
This is an honest and pretty grim recount of my experience working as a paramedic with London Ambulance Service throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic from January 2020-June 2021. I have since resigned and left London to pursue exciting new adventures and I can look back on my experience and take many positive from it. I have become a more competent paramedic, confident person and I am proud of the role I played in the survival and recovery of many sick patients.
When I moved to London in January 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was little more than a rumour and seemed like it would fizzle out by the end of the month. I had recently become a qualified paramedic in New South Wales and looking for the next challenge. I was facing a choice of working in a quiet town in regional Australia or smack bang in the middle of the action in London, UK. Feeling like a challenge and an overseas adventure, London was the obvious choice.
The year started off exciting with ski trips to the French alps and becoming a tourist in my own city. Covid was scary but seemed under control. If a patient was thought to have Covid, crews that had specially fitted PPE would put on the highest level of protection (Tyvek suit, mask, goggles and two layers of gloves), assess and collect the patient, transport them to hospital where they would be tested in the ambulance and then transport them home to isolate. The ambulance would be decommissioned for decontamination and it was an easy five-hour job. Still, I dreaded a Covid job.
As a known germaphobe, infectious disease had always stressed me out. My Australian crew mate would often laugh as I decontaminated the entire ambulance and myself after a patient with a stomach bug. As Covid cases increased, the service increased the “fit testing” of the PPE masks required to attend Covid patients. I avoided the testing for as long as I could until I was called into the office for my turn.
Numbers exploded and by mid-March, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and we entered a state of emergency. Pressures rose at work as the calls flooded in and covid was unavoidable. At this point, I was scared to go to work. We knew very little about the virus we were fighting, and the media was doing a good job about dramatizing the young, healthy people dying. Patients that we related to, that could have been us. Many times, throughout the following months I questioned why I was still working, whether I’d really wanted to risk my life for this job.
And several of my colleagues did die; I would start my day with emails with obituary notices and the hospitals displayed “in memory of” photographs about nurses and doctors that had passed away. Morale was at an all-time low. A senior manager overtly stated to me that it was inevitable that we would all get it, the exposure too great and the PPE not sufficient, and it would just be chance who would survive. It felt like a lambs to the slaughter.
Mothers, children, teenage boys, young adults and the elderly were all getting sick. Many of them died. And we were witnesses. I took countless elderly patients to hospital knowing they would never leave. I would make sure their family took their time to say a proper goodbye, knowing these would be the last words between daughter and mother, grandson and grandpa, husband and wife. I will always be able to recall the final words and tears shared.
As the ambulance service and hospitals were pushed to the brink of collapse, protocols changed to only take the very sickest patients to hospital and leave the rest. The greatest good for the biggest number of people. But this brought a new element of stress to work. Leaving someone at home that you would otherwise take to hospital for further tests in normal conditions felt like an unfair responsibility placed on us. I was constantly weighing which held the biggest risk: going to hospital for further tests with the potential to contract Covid, or staying at home to avoid the pandemic, but potentially not detecting something serious. I often lay awake at night after a twelve-hour shift wondering if that was the right decision.
Anxiety rose in my household as well. While my five housemates worked from home in lockdown, I was constantly being exposed to COVID before coming home to them. I would obsessively clean everything I took home from work, change clothes, bag my uniform in clinical waste bags and shower as soon as I got home. To their credit, my housemates were incredibly supportive, and I never felt uneasy at home. They were always welcoming and inclusive. Some of my colleagues were not as lucky, kicked out their share houses and ostracised for being high risk while out on the frontline trying to help the sick. Clapping for the NHS and community appreciation was a beautiful sentiment, but it masked a deeper rejection and isolation felt by many medical staff.
Further restrictions were put in place as the months wore on. Running and cycling were banned along the Thames, a final tipping point to my capacity to cope. Burnt out, exhausted and suffering from the social isolation, I was struggling.
Thankfully, with the turn of summer, restrictions temporarily eased and travel throughout Europe brought some much-needed respite. I felt my compassion return throughout a solo 10-day hike through the Alps, when running the Corfu Trail in Greece and by eating my way through Italy. However, travel was still complicated; flights were constantly being cancelled and countries were taken off the travel corridor last minute. After a stressful deportation from Switzerland and several cancelled trips, it became my only option to book flights the night before leaving and come back on a Friday evening before travel corridor lists were updated.
With a second peak gaining momentum, international travel ceased, mask wearing indoors became mandatory and stricter restrictions were put in place throughout November and December. As cases soared, and death rates along with it, the NHS was again under extreme pressure. We all launched back into work with a weary knowing, but at least sustained with new experiences over the summer. But cases were worse, and exposure was unavoidable. Now tests were more available, many more paramedics were off isolating after contracting Covid, myself included. It was our turn to weather the virus and hope we survived it without long lasting effects.
London Fire brigade and Police officers came to help, driving a single paramedic around who would be then solely responsible for patient care. I started to suffer with insomnia, a mix of stress from work, a lack of sunshine and no new fun experiences. I often only got 2-3 hours sleep before my first shift, kept awake with anxiety of what situations I might get called to the next day and have to manage without a paramedic crew mate.
As winter started to move in, the days got shorter and colder. Christmas was cancelled, along with most of the cheer that comes with it. With a difficult time difference between London and Australia, any calls to friends and family surrounded Covid. Cases, deaths and restrictions saturated the conversations. As the New Year rolled over, hope was at an all-time low for change in 2021. Days were cold and grey, the sun set at 3.30pm and rose as late as 9am. January was busier than ever with Covid patients. Lunch breaks were rare, leaving paramedics to scoff down their lunch between calls while parked next to large, refrigerated shipping containers dumped in the garage as a make-shift morgue overflow. We would walk past these shipping containers every day at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, full of bodies stacked on top of each other, wrapped in layers of plastic.
Thankfully, an aggressive vaccination program and harsh restrictions saw results as cases and deaths started to decrease. A ‘roadmap’ out of restrictions was announced and Londoners started to crawl out of the grim. Covid patients decreased, and regular calls of chest pain, strokes and trauma started to take over. I resigned at the beginning of summer; burnt out, tired and finding myself without much compassion left to relate to patients. The weather started warming up and international travel was on the cards again.
Looking back, it was an incredibly tough time. It pushed me beyond my capacity to cope and showed me how resilient I was. I look back at the experience with pride of sticking at it, helping others in need and contributing to the fight against Covid. My colleagues and I have been through something that only we can relate to which bonds us all together. My housemates have become some of my best friends, with months spent in each other’s pockets, entertaining ourselves with board games, dinner parties and fancy dress. I had different opportunities to explore more of the UK and other countries that I may not have explored if not for restrictions and gleaned a lot of life experience from living and working in the centre of a global pandemic. It was tough; but I don’t have any regrets staying. Just no repeats thank you.