In October during the second lockdown, a sudden burst of fear came over Amy Fitzpatrick. She was shaking from head to toe and didn’t understand what was happening. For the first time in her life, she was experiencing a panic attack.
“I’ve had one every day since. They’re not as long or aggressive, but it’s been very, very hard.”
Amy is a wheelchair user and lives in Clonshaugh, north Dublin with her 71-year-old mother Tanya, who is her carer. Both fall into the high-risk Covid-19 category, as Amy suffers from muscular dystrophy and her Mam is recovering from a serious illness. She has been calling for carers looking after the vulnerable to be prioritised in the vaccine roll-out.
“My Mam stopped going out on March 13 last year and hasn’t gone out since. The only time I got her out was very recently for a drive,” she told the Irish Independent.
“I get a very small amount of home help to try to relieve my Mam. Somebody in my situation would be entitled to two hours minimum a day - I get two hours a week, which is crap.”
While over-70s living in the community are currently being inoculated, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly confirmed it could be mid-May before all this group are vaccinated. People 85 and over are receiving the jab first, followed by those in the 80-84 group, the 75 to 79 group and then those aged between 70 and 74.
Family carers were devastated after changes to the vaccination priority list failed to include any mention of carers being moved up the queue, describing themselves as “the forgotten frontline workers”.
“If my Mam got sick with anything including Covid, who is there to help me? We initially thought my Mam’s group would be vaccinated by March, now it’s May or June.
“It is literally me, Mam, the dogs and the back garden. We couldn’t bubble with anyone, my sister is across the road but she’s a counsellor and still had to see clients so we couldn’t take the risk.”
Amy has been actively involved in sport all her life and before the pandemic, she volunteered with the Irish Wheelchair Association and the National Rehabilitation Hospital. She describes herself as “sports-mad”, so having that outlet taken away has been difficult.
“I’ve had a ball in my hand since I was three years old. I’ve been playing wheelchair rugby competitively for seven years. That all had to stop. It’s a complete change of lifestyle. Before I didn’t know what anxiety felt like. I know what it’s like to be nervous getting on a plane. It’s getting better, but every time I close my eyes I see people on ventilators.”
In 2010, while in her early 20s, Amy moved to Tasmania, an island 240km south of Australia.
It wasn’t until then her muscular dystrophy started to manifest itself. She had to move back home after three months.
“I went for a swim one day and couldn’t stay afloat and realised then that something was wrong. I was falling down stairs and stuff and didn’t understand what was happening. When I came home they thought I had motor neuron disease, but it turned out to be muscular dystrophy, a muscle wasting condition. People think of your arms or legs but your heart is a muscle, your lung is a muscle. Opening and closing your eyes is a muscle. It was trying to find the one I had, it attacked my heart and lungs more so. That makes you more at risk with Covid.
“I haven’t lost a job or anyone close to me. My next door neighbour had Covid in March. All of a sudden my best friend’s dad died of it. It all became too much too quickly. Everything came together. I have started seeing a counsellor and they pointed out how I wasn’t getting to see my friends and family, I wasn’t getting to do sport or the camps I used to, so it all made sense.”
Amy has now been moved up to group 4 of the vaccine roll-out plan, as someone aged between 16 and 69 who is at very high-risk .
Minister Donnelly said he will ask the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) to consider whether family carers could be included in one of the vaccine groups currently being reviewed.
Author and broadcaster Teena Gates, who cares for her 95-year-old father and has long campaigned for better treatment of carers by the State, revealed he has yet to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
The HSE has now advised that their local GP is due to receive their doses of the vaccine this week, but many carers have since taken to social media to highlight how their vulnerable loved ones are being impacted by the “frustrating” roll-out.
There are approximately 500,000 family carers in Ireland, and they feel they have been “forgotten” by the continued failure to prioritise family carers in the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine.
Family Carers Ireland said: “While we welcome the Government’s decision to move many patients aged 16-69 with serious underlying health conditions up the priority list based on advice from NIAC, the fact that family carers are not even mentioned in the revised listing is deeply disappointing.
“Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has stated that the Covid-19 vaccination programme ‘has always been built on fairness’. Where is the fairness for family carers who have gone above and beyond throughout this pandemic to keep their loved ones safe at home and out of our overburdened hospitals? Why should unpaid family carers providing extraordinary levels of care in the home be treated any differently to paid care workers who are prioritised for the vaccine?”