An airline pilot who set up first-class-style lounges in hospitals across the country at the start of the pandemic to give exhausted NHS frontline staff a break has been made an MBE.
Captain Emma Henderson, from Moray in Scotland, realised very early that large parts of the UK’s fleet of airliners would soon be grounded as the pandemic took hold.
She put her 29 years in the industry to good use by setting up Project Wingman, a series of airport-style quiet spaces, to “wrap a blanket” around frontline workers in the middle of a busy shift.
The project was manned by former and current airline staff, the majority of whom were on furlough, and soon had 5,500 volunteers based in more than 80 hospitals across the UK.
Commenting on the MBE for services to charity, Captain Henderson said: “As the Covid crisis marched towards us it became very obvious to those of us that were flying at the time that we weren’t going to be continuing doing that for long.”
She continued: “The NHS was facing a tidal wave of struggle and to me it seemed very obvious that there was a huge, almost army, of air crew that could use their skills to just wrap their arms around the NHS a little bit and provide a little bit of extra care.”
Captain Henderson said the positive response from NHS workers had been overwhelming, adding: “We were just there to wrap our arms around the NHS, provide an extra warm blanket if you like in the storm.
“The gratitude we were shown for those simple actions was really overwhelming and very humbling.”
Captain Henderson said she only truly realised how valuable the project was when a friend told her the first time her daughter, a doctor, had been able to finish a shift without crying was when a Wingman Lounge was set up in her hospital.
“When it is someone that you know personally it makes such a massive difference,” she said.
“It really made me step back and think ‘Wow, the 18-hour days we have been putting in and the huge amount of work put in by so many of us is making a really significant difference to people I actually know’.”
The project continues to grow, and two lounges have now been set up in New York.
Another person recognised for using her people skills to help NHS staff struggling with the stress of the crisis was nurse Catherine Fitzsimmons.
Having retired from the NHS after 42 years in January 2019, she was one of the first retired nurses to return to frontline service in Greater Manchester when the NHS launched its recruitment drive.
After being honoured with the British Empire Medal (BEM), she said: “I couldn’t sit at home while my colleagues were struggling with unprecedented situations.”
She helped develop the system at Salford Royal Hospital and at Fairfield Hospital for professionals to keep families in touch with their loved ones, and informed about their condition, when they were barred from visiting.
Ms Fitzsimmons said trying to support grieving families was one of the hardest thing for staff to deal with.
“I found younger members of the teams were really, really struggling with communication, with PPE, with change of policy, with visitors not being allowed in to see their families,” she said.
“That was a real, real difficulty for them.”
She said setting up various communication channels had involved staff learning “a lot of new IT skills” and joked the hardest thing had been learning to “smile with your eyes” when wearing a facemask and visor.
“That’s a tricky one. Then you start steaming up and nobody can see you,” she said.
Ms Fitzsimmons said: “I feel extremely honoured, I feel very, very emotional because I’m just a very small cog in a big machine of amazing teams across the whole NHS.”