‘Exhausted’ nurse says improving coronavirus patients give her strength

Sam Russell, PA
·3-min read

A specialist nurse has said that seeing Covid-19 patients slowly improve on her critical care unit gives her strength to carry on in the job.

Lisa Fontes, 41, who works at Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, said: “I just feel everybody’s really exhausted but we still try to get focused and try to do the best for the patients.

“I think in the last two weeks or so we realise that a lot of patients are improving and we are able to see them more awake and start improving.

“I think we feel really grateful for that and this is giving us strength to carry on.”

Lisa Fontes checks on a patient suffering with Covid-19 on the critical care unit at the Royal Papworth Hospital
Lisa Fontes checks on a patient suffering with Covid-19 on the critical care unit at the Royal Papworth Hospital (Joe Giddens/PA)

The heart and lung hospital treats some of the sickest patients in the country, with no A&E department and people instead referred from other hospitals.

It is one of five centres in England that offers a treatment which helps patients whose lungs were not helped by a ventilator, called ECMO – extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation.

The machine pumps oxygen into the blood, allowing the lungs to rest.

Ms Fontes became an ECMO specialist just before the first wave of the pandemic.

“I felt that I had to step up very quickly and I had a huge responsibility on my shoulders, but I think all the team have been really amazing and the work that we are doing together is just so passionate that I think we were able to just go through all this and do the best we can for the patients, families and for each other,” she said.

Normally the hospital would have three patients on ECMO, but in wave one this was “super surged” to 21 and in wave two to 25.

“It’s been really a tough year, it’s been overwhelming,” she said.

“I think we never imagined we’d go through this at all.”

She went on: “I don’t know what was worse, the first wave or this wave, as now we were kind of expecting and we knew what we were going through and I think that was a little bit hard on us to understand that it would be hard again.”

The longest that a patient has been on an ECMO machine at the hospital is around 70 days, said Stephen Webb, consultant in intensive care.

Dr Webb, 45, said: “It’s been a rollercoaster, because one minute we can be fairly relaxed and the next minute we’re inundated with patients and that really is what it’s been like over the last year or so.”

The longest that a patient has been on an ECMO machine at the hospital is around 70 days
The longest that a patient has been on an ECMO machine at the hospital is around 70 days (Joe Giddens/PA)

He added: “I think we are over the worst.”

Nurse Lorenca Daci, who usually works in the hospital’s cath labs where patients have heart procedures, volunteered to work on the critical care unit for around a month as part of the hospital’s redeployment plan.

The 29-year-old said she wanted to help as the “demand over their head was massive in my opinion”.

She said she felt “stressed” to begin with but was helped by the team.

“When you eventually see (patients) recovering, or waking up, having a phone call with their family it’s such an overwhelming feeling and you feel like you’ve provided so much,” she said.

She said it was a “really strong feeling” to see “people almost your age just being just so poorly and some of them just deteriorating day by day”.

“Nursing is a hard job but if you don’t love what you do, which is just being there for the patients, being there for those in need, you’re never going to be able to cope,” she said.

Lavinia Magee, 56, nurse consultant in thoracic oncology, said: “Morale at the moment is actually very good but there’s a level of exhaustion throughout the nursing teams and that’s across the UK.”