‘The heat, the noise, the smell, the panic... it was like a war zone’: Life on the Covid wards

Intensive care nurse: 'Seeing the imprint of the mask on the faces in Breathtaking is really triggering. We all had that imprint'
Intensive care nurse: 'Seeing the imprint of the mask on the faces in Breathtaking is really triggering. We all had that imprint' - ITV

Trapped in our homes, unable to see loved ones, fearful for a terrifying future – the pandemic brought the entire nation to a standstill.

But inside Britain’s hospitals, where doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals were fighting on the front lines of Covid-19, was a hive of activity, each day a battle to save lives and stop the spread of the disease.

Almost four years on, it’s easy to forget the trauma and tragedy wrought inside emergency units and intensive care wards at the height of the pandemic.

But for those who were there, Breathtaking, the three-part ITV drama based on a book by palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke, and written by Jed Mercurio, is bringing it all back.

Stark, graphic and harrowing, the series – which concludes tonight – has been described as “triggering”, but praised for its uncompromising reflection of just how bad things really were.

In response, medics have been taking to social media in their thousands, revealing the physical, mental and emotional toll of real life on the Covid wards. Here, in their own words, are their stories.

‘A lot of the time I cried on the way home’

Core medical gastroenterology trainee, Lancashire

Breathtaking takes viewers to the front lines of the pandemic
Breathtaking takes viewers to the front lines of the pandemic - ITV

I’d just come back from shared parental leave for a three-month-old daughter when the pandemic hit. One of the things that will always stay with me is the sensation of feeling guilty every time I went home and hugged my baby girl. I felt like I shouldn’t be doing it in case I infected her.

I commuted an hour each way to the hospital. Getting in the car and driving to work felt like stepping into a different life.

A lot of the time I cried on the way home, blaring music. I’d get changed in my car, go in, shower a couple of times, get changed again – and then go downstairs to see my wife and daughter.

I was mainly covering the Covid ward, as well as treating patients in the Acute Medical Unit. There were lots of deaths in the early period. None of us thought about what was going to happen in the future – we took each shift as it came and did what we could.

I’d step on to the ward and people would ask me, “What do we do next?” And I just didn’t know: we’d do bloods, increase antibiotics, try something, anything – but most of the time it didn’t help. It was the biggest lack of control I’d ever experienced.

I still have nightmares, in which I’m on a ward round and 100 people are coming up to me, asking questions, and there’s nothing I can do. I talk to my wife about it – she’s a doctor, too – and she helps me work through it.

Watching Breathtaking has brought it all back. I can only take one episode at a time. It’s important that we don’t forget the pandemic, but it worries me how few lessons seem to have been learned.

‘I was washing my hands so much they started bleeding’

Intensive therapy unit (ITU) registrar, London

Harrowing doesn’t even begin to describe what it was like looking after an entire ward – between 20 and 30 – of the sickest Covid patients at the height of the pandemic.

Most were intubated and ventilated, so they weren’t awake the entire time I was there. I couldn’t ask how many kids they had or what their hobbies were. Their humanity was taken away – all I could do was check their medication, take their bloods, adjust their ventilators.

Like many others, I was redeployed to ITU from a different specialty, which was extremely challenging. I had five days to get my old medical school notes out and re-learn the whole of intensive care medicine.

I worked 13-hour shifts – three days on, three days off, three nights on – for several months. It wasn’t worth going home, so the hospital put me and some colleagues up in a hotel nearby. I longed to sleep in my own bed, to take a shower in my own home.

Almost every patient I looked after was a black or Asian middle-aged male. As an ethnic minority person myself, this really hit home. I couldn’t help wondering if it could be me, or a relative, further down the line.

Everyone at the hospital was paranoid – we didn’t understand how virulent it was – so we were militant about hand-washing and PPE.

It got to the point where I was washing my hands so much they started bleeding. The seal on my mask was so tight it cracked the skin on my nose, which was agony – but I couldn’t stop wearing it.

We all did what we had to; better a few scars than getting Covid and not being able to do my job.

‘Day after day, I was breaking the worst news possible to entire families’

Cardiology registrar, Kent

Emergency medical consultant: 'It’s almost impossible to make a connection with someone when they can’t hear you in a mask or see you under a visor'
Emergency medical consultant: 'It’s almost impossible to make a connection with someone when they can’t hear you in a mask or see you under a visor' - Steve Parsons/Getty Images

On my Covid ward round one morning, I remember seeing 25 patients – and telling eight of those families their loved ones were going to die.

In Cardiology, the specialty I normally work in, people don’t die that often: I have those conversations once a week. But this was every day, day after day, breaking the worst news possible to entire families and telling them they couldn’t come in and say goodbye because of the risks.

Parts of Kent were the number one Covid hotspots in the country. We got so used to seeing horrible chest X-rays and off-the-chart blood tests. The hospital started off with one “hot” Covid ward, then another and another – until almost every ward was full.

Because of the sheer quantity of patients, we ended up providing ITU care in A&E and other general medical wards. We had to ration resources. Staffing was fine – no-one could take holiday so we had 20 per cent of the workforce back – but everyone was exhausted. Normally in my job we make people better, but all we could do was watch them die.

I admitted one of the nurses’ husbands, a 50-year-old man who was otherwise fit and healthy. Within 12 hours we decided to intubate him and take him to intensive care. I remember saying to his wife, “Don’t worry – he’ll be out in a few days.” He was asleep on the ITU for 40 days. When he eventually left, he was skin and bones in a wheelchair.

When the second wave came out, my friends were getting apathetic and I remember texting to warn them: Don’t visit your families, trust me – this is worse than you think.

‘I’m not sure I’m ready to relive it’

Emergency medical consultant, Cambridgeshire

ITU registrar: 'The seal on my mask was so tight it cracked the skin on my nose, which was agony'
ITU registrar: 'The seal on my mask was so tight it cracked the skin on my nose, which was agony' - ITV

During Covid, people coming into hospital were really, really scared. One of the most difficult parts of work for me was being unable to reassure them because I was wearing full PPE.

It’s almost impossible to make a connection with someone when they can’t hear you in a mask or see you under a visor. We lost that ability to properly comfort patients, and that was tough going.

It took a huge emotional toll, telling young, healthy people that this had the potential to make them really unwell, and you didn’t know which way it was going to go.

I remember a young, fit man who had the typical symptoms – a cough and feeling breathless – who arrived with some work documents. “I’ve got loads to do, so I’m going to get on with it,” he said. I saw from his tests how unwell he was and I remember thinking, “No, you’re not.” Within an hour he had a breathing tube put in and he was moved to intensive care.

At the other end of the spectrum I was speaking to old, frail people who’d contracted Covid and I knew they weren’t going to survive it. Having those conversations multiple times a day, day after day, really stays with you.

I’m lucky – my partner is also medical, so he was going through the same experience and we could talk about how hard it was. We maximised time with our children and tried to get out, rules permitting, just to get some fresh air.

I think it’s important for people to understand the toll the pandemic took on healthcare professionals – but I don’t know if I can bring myself to watch Breathtaking. I don’t struggle to remember what that experience was like and I’m not sure I’m ready to relive it.

‘Seeing the imprint of masks on faces is really triggering’

Intensive care nurse, London

Volunteer manager: 'Ordinarily I worked 9am to 5pm, but it soon became clear we were needed in evenings and at weekend'
Volunteer manager: 'Ordinarily I worked 9am to 5pm, but it soon became clear we were needed in evenings and at weekend' - Kirsty Wigglesworth-Pool/Getty Images

I’ve never been in a war zone, but working in ICU during the pandemic can’t have been far off. The heat, the noise, the smell – vomit, urine, sweat, human disease – the panic on everyone’s faces, the disconnect from the rest of the world… I’ll never forget it.

I’ve been a nurse for 40 years, over half of that time in intensive care. The GP surgery I was working at got quiet so I called a contact at a London hospital and asked if they could use my skills. They said yes – and I was there in two days.

They’d converted a normal ward into a Covid intensive care unit, and I was given three ventilated patients to supervise per shift. We worked 13-hour days, starting at 8am. You just did not stop. I went from bed to bed, monitoring vitals, emptying bags, taking measurements, checking ventilators and pumps and feeding tubes.

There was a futility about it. You’d look around at the patients and think, “You’re all going to die.” What most people don’t realise is that, at that time, if you were sick enough to be in intensive care, there was an 80 per cent mortality rate.

My family was scared. My son’s girlfriend had moved in with us and she was terrified I was going to bring it back with me. They’d leave a bin bag by the front door, where I’d take my clothes off and go straight to the bathroom, without touching anything, to have a shower.

Seeing the imprint of the mask on the faces in Breathtaking is really triggering. We all had that imprint – it’s a real image of that time. It was awful and chaotic but I never felt traumatised – I still don’t. I felt privileged and honoured to do my bit.

‘Four staff members lost their lives to Covid – there was never a chance to mourn’

Volunteer manager, Hertfordshire

ITU registrar: 'Harrowing doesn’t even begin to describe what it was like looking after an entire ward'
ITU registrar: 'Harrowing doesn’t even begin to describe what it was like looking after an entire ward' - Getty Images/Hannah McKay

I lost count of the number of heartbreaking stories I heard, notes I delivered and video calls my team and I facilitated during Covid. There was so much fear around and families were ripped apart – all they wanted was to hug and to hold each other.

As manager of a team of volunteers at a busy hospital, I saw it all. We acted as ‘front of house’: people would drop care parcels, pyjamas, chargers, food, handwritten letters and all sorts of personal items with us and we would run them up to the door of the ward their loved one was in.

I remember one woman made a scrapbook for her mum, who had dementia, and inside were photos of all her family, even her dog, with little notes on who everyone was. Seeing things like that took a huge toll – you knew they might never see each other again.

The hours were long: ordinarily I worked Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, but it soon became clear we were needed in evenings and at weekends. It was a surreal time but it did feel like we were having an impact, and I experienced some wonderful humanity and kindness amidst the horrors.

Four staff members at the hospital where I worked lost their lives to Covid. That really hit home. I knew one of them but there was never a chance to properly mourn.

Watching Breathtaking really reminded me of the rationing of PPE, and how angry that made some of the medical staff. We helped out with its distribution and I remember being told to only give everyone one mask. It was really hard to say no – lives depended on it, but we had no choice.