Memorial for NHS Heroes who saw ‘whole families pass away’

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SHATTERED nurse Rebecca O’Dwyer would wake at 3am every night as the reality of Covid’s first wave hit home. And 18 months on she warned that the anti-vaxxers refusing lifesaving jabs are putting more people at risk with the virus wreaking growing misery. It has left exhausted staff at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust scared for their safety once more.

Lead nurse Rebecca, 49, said: “We’ve had difficulty with vaccine uptake in the area with there being suspicion around it. Staff are uneasy and frightened about another peak.”

The findings from a survey about the mental impact on intensive care unit (ICU) teams have left her fearing how much more they can take.

She said: “The duration of exposure to that level of stress has been extreme.

Even as peaks fall, the intensity of work continues as we tackle the backlog. We all worry about the resilience of staff who have been through so much already.”

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Rebecca, who has served for 30 years and lives in Staffordshire with her orthopaedic surgeon partner Emma, has witnessed the impact gruelling shifts have had on her colleagues.

She refused to take sick leave until she finally had spinal surgery in October. And now she is championing better psychological support for frontline workers still reeling from toiling throughout the pandemic. She said: “We need to see proper investment in intensive care. And we need ongoing support because as soon as one pressure on staff is removed, it’s replaced with another.

“Staff don’t get to have a break. We really need to have embedded psychological support on every ICU ward to help staff recover from what they’ve been through, as well as offering increased support to patients.

“I was most scared at the beginning of wave one, we didn’t know how bad it would be. I felt scared in a way I can’t explain. I remember the morning Boris was admitted to critical care and for some reason that made it even more real for me.

“I remember sitting at my coffee table crying before driving into work, anxious for everyone. I felt a knot in my stomach for weeks. I didn’t need an alarm clock as I was awake at 3am every morning without fail.

“I never worried about our patients because I know our team is outstanding, I worried for my staff, making sure they had everything we could get them to make them safe. At times I found it hard to be strong and in control as I was as worried as everyone else.

“We all had our scared moments.” Rebecca added: “We increased our two ICU wards to four at the peak. It was difficult as you can’t increase the number of ICU nurses you have.

“Staff found this extremely stressful. They want to deliver care to their usual standard but could not.”

Fearful for themselves and their families, many of her workmates moved into hotels provided by the trust. And leading up the peak her hospital began training staff from other backgrounds to support ICU.

During the first wave 170 extra staff could help out but the majority had little or no experience of working in the unit. Rebecca said: “They were scared and needed support, education and direction from an already stretched team. Their efforts were amazing.

“The emotional burden on staff was massive. Lots of patients were dying, on the worst day we lost six in one shift. The staff worked tirelessly to support families and patients when they had to be separated. Staff would video call relatives so they could at least see their loved ones.

“We saw whole families pass away, young patients separated from their families.

“Managing this and supporting patients’ families was incredibly difficult. A lot of people died without their relatives present or they watched over video calls.

“That’s a big thing for exhausted staff to take home with them at the end of a long shift.

“We strive to give our patients a good death with dignity and with their relatives by their side, sadly this wasn’t always the case.

“Our organisation was hit hard and in critical care we lost colleagues and friends.

“Nothing will take that pain away from the people affected.

“But a memorial may in time become a place to remember and reflect on the sacrifice and bravery of them all.”

Sculpture immortalises health workers’ ultimate sacrifice

Lead nurse Rebecca O’Dwyer is backing our Memorial for NHS Heroes campaign.

The 20ft bronze sculpture will immortalise every healthcare worker who perished fighting coronavirus.

The £250,000 piece of art is to carry the names of those selfless staff, remembered forever with the inscription: You laid your love for those in life. Your sleep is not in vain.

Britain has the seventh-highest Covid death toll in the world – with 155,465 cases where the virus was mentioned on the death certificate.

Figures show at least 1,561 health and social care staff have so far died while battling the pandemic.

The sculpture will have two intertwined trees with hundreds of leaves, each individually hand-sculpted. Wind chimes shaped like catkins also feature.

The 63-stone memorial is designed with roots tumbling down over bronze rocks in a poignant representation of eternal life. It is being created by Nicola Ravenscroft and is due to be unveiled in central London next year.

Equally significant sculptures will also be unveiled in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, acknowledging the sacrifices made in the fight against Covid.

Find out how to donate here

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