16 April 2020
E.J. More describes her experience of being an NHS nurse, and a writer, during the COVID-19 crisis
I fractured my ankle in February. A random fall one lunchtime meant six weeks off from my job as a practice nurse. Doctor’s orders: feet up; watch telly; heal.
To some this may sound boring, or lonely. But I’m a writer, happy in my own company. In ordinary times this wouldn’t be the worst of circumstances. Painkillers allowing, maybe I’d finish that half-drafted novel, enter a competition or two. Unexpected leave could be seen as a gift to the time-poor creative, if time was truly what held them back.
But then everything changed.
Covid-19 didn’t appear overnight. The news had warned of the spread, but for most it still seemed like someone else’s problem, and, despite its recent arrival on UK soil, the panic hadn’t yet begun.
As those first days rolled by, I should have been writing. I wasn’t ill, just a little broken. I had nothing but time to write. And yet.
I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Instead, from the sofa, I watched with creeping dread as the numbers began to climb, rolling bulletins repeating, ad infinitum, that the world as we knew it would change.
I may work in a cosy GP practice now - ‘ears and smears’ as an old friend once described it - but my first seven years as an NHS nurse were spent in critical care. And believe me when I say, my ICU spider-sense tingled with every broadcast.
Yes, I understood what it meant to have the hospitals overwhelmed, the staff, the ventilators, stretched to capacity, and beyond. But it wasn’t just that. If you ask any nurse with experience of an acute care setting they’ll tell you: the muscle memory sticks, your DNA somehow altered. And the vibrations of a distant but fast approaching stampede hummed under foot.
This was bad.
Writing is my barometer, my mineshaft canary. A decline in mental health or an unchecked work/life balance and my creativity takes a hit. I wanted to write so many things, but instead, paralysed by the sheer weight of it all, I wrote nothing.
Nurses are a distinct breed of human. We learn to bypass our fear, channel it, even, to get the job done. But I wasn’t at work. At that moment I wasn’t even a nurse, just a person with a bit of insider knowledge. And what good was that without my support network of colleagues to help pick apart and process all the what-ifs and worst-case-scenarios? To help quieten the noise?
That’s how we do what we do. It isn’t about some immutable strength bestowed on us as individuals. No one person can face a crisis, much less a global pandemic, alone and expect to come out of it unscathed. We turn to our fellow workers for the kind of camaraderie that can only be born from situations of high stress. We laugh, we cry, we annoy the hell out of each other, then we get up again and do it all the next day with a fresh smile and a clean slate. There’s no room for grudges in healthcare.
Outside the workplace, my anxiety worsened as the calendar ticked down towards my impending return. What would I find when I got there? Would I be safe?
Meanwhile, across the country, and the globe, everything was shutting down. People feared for their jobs, their livelihoods, or worse. I tried in vain to have a stern word with myself. All I really wanted was to stay home under a blanket with my family, shielded from the dangers outside.
Nonetheless, time moved on.
I learned to lower my expectations. The novel could wait, I decided. I took pride in the small victories: a well-crafted tweet, a text message to a loved one, a chapter of a bedtime story, read to my son with Oscar-worthy conviction. It felt good to demand less of myself.
And so, as the national lockdown began, the day arrived for my sick leave to end, ankle not perfect but better. I got out of bed, slipped easily back into the familiar morning routine. As if this was any other normal day. As if the world wasn’t falling apart.
Shower, breakfast, two cups of tea (one is never enough), then back upstairs. Grab a clean, pressed uniform from the four neatly hanging in the wardrobe.
Normal day. Nothing on fire. Breathe.
I faced the mirror, zipping myself into the dark blue dress, smoothing the white piping around the collar, and stood noticeably straighter than before. The anxiety faded, replaced by something new, something powerful, something akin to pride. I knew then that I was ready.
I set off down the stairs.
I’m a nurse. I’m NHS. And it was time I got back to work.
Has your creative concentration been affected by the COVID-19 crisis? Read what to write when you can't concentrate on writing.