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‘I hope I’ve made a difference in the national effort to fight this’

As the Nightingale Hospital at London’s Excel Centre is placed on standby, a student from the University of East Anglia (UEA) has shared their experience of volunteering there.

This comes as the Government announces there will be no new cases admitted to the hospital and it will remain as a standby COVID-19 facility for the time being.

In February, Alex Hunter completed her Master’s degree in occupational therapy at UEA’s School of Health Sciences and had set off to travel in Sri Lanka before she was set to begin a job in the NHS in London. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to fly home early and put her planned job on hold to volunteer at the Nightingale Hospital.

Alex took the role as a clinical support worker on 15 April and has been working 12 and a half hour shifts at the temporary surge facility, staying at a nearby hotel with her partner who also worked there in the same role.

Despite her new professional qualification as an occupational therapist, Alex wanted to begin to help as soon as possible and was a clinical support worker for around three weeks.

Tasks included patient observations, running blood gases and helping to keep patients as comfortable as possible which also includes chatting to people if they are able to, to keep their spirits up. Alex had also been able to utilise some of her occupational therapy skills such as positioning to reduce pressure sores and helping patients to regain strength and pace themselves for recovery.  

Alex said: “Every shift was pretty non-stop but I think that is probably the case across the whole NHS right now, everyone is working so hard to continue delivering the highest level of care they can in this situation.”

She says one of the challenges she encountered was hearing her colleagues in the open and busy ward which can become quite loud with machines, especially when they were kitted up in full PPE. But Alex and her colleagues learnt to communicate using signs, something which she was taught in a crash course before beginning the role.

But it wasn’t just physical training Alex was given, all staff receive something termed ‘psychological PPE’ which helps them to identify stressors and early warning signs where they could be struggling emotionally, and there’s also a wellbeing team onsite 24/7 to support staff.

Alex has been honest that the experience has been a learning curve for her as she had minimal experience in working in intensive care, but she has relished working in such an intense environment.

With the Nightingale Hospital now being placed on standby, she will now begin her role as an occupational therapist at the Royal Free Hospital in London. There are plans for her to return if she is needed in the future.

She said: “I have only briefly worked in an Intensive Care Unit on one of my student placements and always found the sheer amount of machines and wires attached to each patient quite daunting. But with the support of a bunch of people I’d never met until three weeks ago, I’ve learnt so much and I hope I’ve made a difference in the national effort to fight this.”

Alex is one of hundreds of UEA’s health sciences and medicine students who are currently working and volunteering, across the country.

Professor Sally Hardy, Dean of Health Sciences at UEA said: “Our students are passionate about people, incredibly caring, courageous and kind. They are often making big sacrifices in the current circumstances so that they can help others and the whole nation during this pandemic. I take this opportunity to thank every single one of them, and to Alex for the hard work they are putting back into the NHS at this time, we are so very proud of all that you are doing.”

Alex added: “I think everyone has been keen to step up to the mark and has embraced the challenge of beginning their careers in the midst of this world-wide pandemic.”

Hear from two other occupational therapists who are helping on the frontline on UEA's Community Blog.

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