Something has got to give: ICU nurse describes ‘constant strain’ of pandemic

By Edd Dracott, PA
·4-min read

The acute stress of the coronavirus pandemic has forced many NHS staff out of work, even prompting a suicide attempt, an intensive care nurse has said.

Jane, which is not her real name, from West Yorkshire, is 46 years old and has worked in an intensive care unit (ICU) for 16 years.

Despite her experience, in 2020 Jane’s work – in which she regularly witnesses deaths – has caused her stress and physical pain.

“We have seen nothing like this. There is simply no let-up. There is a constant strain on every one of us… something has got to give,” Jane told the PA news agency.

“Many staff are burned out… I know people who have worked on ICU for 20 years and have left or are leaving.

“A colleague I used to work with tried to commit suicide as she couldn’t cope. She’d left ICU, but had been called back to help.

“People seem to forget we are humans, with families and loved ones of our own… many of us have had bereavements ourselves this year, some of whom with Covid.”

The British Medical Association’s (BMA) Council warned earlier this week NHS staff could experience burnout, adding that as many as two in five NHS workers have not had a break since the first wave of the pandemic in March.

Coronavirus – Sat Oct 17, 2020
NHS workers have been hailed as heroes during the pandemic (Danny Lawson/PA)

Jane said she is helped by a psychologist at her hospital, but the pressure is taking a particular toll on younger, less experienced workers – with some staff off sick due to acute and chronic stress and many experiencing PTSD.

She said normally nurses give one-to-one care to patients in ventilated beds but during Covid they are now regularly expected to manage two patients at once.

While there are now more general staff at her hospital, her ICU is still understaffed with doctors despite promises for more to be provided in the second wave.

She said nurses are still regularly forced to contact doctors from elsewhere in the hospital by phone, but it takes time for them to arrive and don appropriate PPE to enter the hospital’s “Covid hot” areas.

In many hospital areas, emergency buzzers also cannot be heard, which has caused several incidents where staff are left alone and unable to summon help.

“This is grossly unacceptable,” she said.

“If you’re on your own, you cannot leave to get a drink, a break or even go to the toilet until someone comes and relieves you.

“Someone was telling me a nurse was in an area alone and she had to go into the sluice to have a wee as she couldn’t get to the toilet.”

Jane said there are also even fewer healthcare assistants, who can aid with tasks like moving patients and equipment than last time.

“This time, we have very few runners and it feels less safe… we were promised runners by management, but this has been a lie,” she said.

“Management have not been very supportive. You often see them on TV in PPE being interviewed.

“This is complete BS, they are NEVER in PPE, they are NEVER on the ‘shop floor’ helping,” she claimed.

Jane described 12-hour shifts, in which workers often do not sit down, as “exhausting” – with PPE causing severe dehydration due to sweat beneath the thick plastic gear.

The issue is compounded by workers needing to breathe through their mouths, as their noses are crushed by their masks – which regularly leave marks and even pressure sores on their faces.

Jane said no matter how much water she drinks during her break, the dehydration causes her bones and joints to ache – and she is regularly awoken in the night by the headaches.

Coronavirus – Thu Oct 15, 2020
The nurse said her profession is ‘massively’ underpaid (Martin Rickett/PA)

Despite the strains, Jane said she is “so proud” of her team and the support staff give to each other.

“We have worked through this, and will get through it,” she said.

“We see each other drowning at times, and help each other.”

Jane said more investment is needed in the NHS to stop nurses like herself being underpaid.

“I get £15 per hour. My mate works on the deli counter at Waitrose and gets £14 an hour (I’m not resenting her, just saying),” she added.

PA contacted NHS England for a statement on the nurse’s comments but had not heard back by the time of publication.