Twelve months on, Weekend magazine meets the medics and key workers who have led our national response to the coronavirus pandemic. From midwives to GPs, funeral directors to postal workers, they share their harrowing – and sometimes inspiring – stories of being up close and personal with the worst of the Covid crisis
‘I wake up and I hate the feeling... I don’t want to go in again and work for nothing’
Student nurse and INMO rep Darren May (19) worked on a Covid ward in a Dublin hospital for six weeks at the beginning of the year
I had only done five or six months of my nursing degree when the pandemic hit. We were all taken off our placements and given contracts as healthcare assistants.
I went to a nursing home for the first wave and nothing could have prepared me for that. It was completely manic.
My next placement was six weeks in a Covid ward in a Dublin hospital. Two hours into my first day, a patient on my ward passed away. I had a lot of anxiety going on in that placement and I was already feeling weird because it was my first day. Then to have someone pass away when you’re supposed to be looking after them... it was heartbreaking.
There was one day on the Covid ward when I had done so much that by 1pm my brain had switched off and I wasn’t taking anything in. When I got home and my mam asked me how my day was, I said, “I genuinely can’t tell you because I don’t feel like I was there.” It was so emotionally hard and physically draining that I just switched off.
If you’re doing two days in a row, you’re dead by the first day. I would do 7.30am-8.30pm. And then by the time I got home, it could be 9.30/10pm. I’d get into bed and I’d have to get up again at 5.30am to be at the hospital for 7am. I pretty much just slept at the weekend.
We don’t get paid for this work except for a €25 travel allowance each week. Some of us have to work 62-plus-hour weeks. We’re doing three 13-hour shifts for free so we have to work on top of that to try and make a living, especially if you’re not from Dublin.
I wake up and I hate the feeling. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go in again and work for nothing. There are people sitting at home doing nothing and getting €350 a week. It’s like, “We’ll clap for you,” in March and April. Now it’s like, “You’re still doing a great job but we won’t pay you — but well done.”
I can’t imagine what new graduates are walking into. They’re on internships, but are they really learning? Are they getting the clinical experience they need? If nurses don’t have the time to teach me as a second-year, how can a fourth-year who’s about to qualify as a nurse feel prepared?
It’s exhausting work. Then, when you get home, your friends are finding excuses not to see you because you’re working as a healthcare worker. If I didn’t have my friends in my nursing degree, I’d honestly have no one.
‘I’m at a loss to effectively treat some of the Covid symptoms that are lingering’
Dr Marcus Butler is a consultant respiratory physician/lecturer at St Vincent’s University Hospital and University College Dublin. He lives in Clontarf with his wife and two children
As healthcare workers, we have a lot of training in viral infection. So we had reason to be cautiously optimistic that we’d get through the infection if we got exposed to it ourselves.
The bigger fear back in March 2020 was that we would infect our households and infect those who are vulnerable close to us. Plus, there’s only so much you can do with a rigorous implementation of infection-control procedure. There’s a generous amount of luck involved in not picking up the infection because, in the nature of our work, we have to work closely together.
There are different patterns emerging and an awful amount of unknowns. There are certainly patients who end up in hospital in their sickest state with Covid-19 pneumonia in both their lungs and who end up on a life-support machine. They can be left with significant scar tissue in their lungs, which can impact on their lung function.
Then there are patients who get lesser illnesses or who haven’t been hospitalised with Covid pneumonia but who end up with symptoms. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what those symptoms mean or what they constitute.
I’m certainly at a loss to effectively treat some of the Covid symptoms that are lingering, sometimes for many months afterwards. The original illness may not have been that severe but it has taken a toll on the person as the weeks and months go on.
We have many more questions than we do answers right now.
I do some voluntary work with the Asthma Society of Ireland and there has been a huge influx of calls from concerned asthma patients who have locked themselves away more so than their peer groups. They’ve taken it upon themselves to impose an incredibly strict self-isolation because they are terrified that their lungs will succumb.
And while most mild-asthma patients seem to be reassuringly able to cope with Covid-19, there are, at the other end of the scale, very severe patients that I see who are very vulnerable. There is scientific data showing that they are at increased risk of Covid-19 mortality and they’ve had to live an incredibly cloistered life compared to what the rest of us are going through.
They’re also extremely self-conscious and afraid that they are being judged as an infectious threat when they have their asthma cough and breathlessness, so they take to living like a hermit because of fear of stigma.
The sad impact of visitor restrictions is another challenge — and I have first-hand experience of this. Like many families around the country, I lost my brother from a long cancer illness during the pandemic, and I was privileged that his medical care at the end of his life was in St Vincent’s.
I was able to be there and support him and his grieving wife and children. They were dealing with the double unfairness of his shortened life but also these restrictions on visitations. It stops the outpouring of love that you would normally have, surrounded by all the important people in your life. It was just a double whammy of emotional trauma.
‘It was very hard to watch the people I cared for die. They’re my family, and we’re their family when their own can’t visit’
Tina Deegan and her mother Trish Deegan worked as carers through two Covid outbreaks in Elm Green Nursing Home, Castleknock in Dublin
Tina: My mam and I work in the same nursing home. When Covid hit, we didn’t want to risk bringing it into two family homes, so I asked my dad to take care of my 14-year-old daughter and my mam moved in with me.
Mam caught Covid a few weeks later, so she had to go home and my daughter had to go and live with my aunty. I got Covid myself in January, while I was on Christmas holidays from work. I self-isolated in my mam’s because I was staying with her at the time.
We had two Covid outbreaks in the nursing home, but the second time around wasn’t as bad. We were much more prepared and we knew what the residents needed.
When people were dying, we gave the families the opportunity to come in. Some of them came in, but a lot of them couldn’t because they were vulnerable and they couldn’t chance getting Covid. We had a woman who was married to her husband for 60 years who couldn’t come in. She was outside the window looking at her husband for a few days.
I found it very hard to watch the people that I cared for die. They’re my family, and we’re their family when their own family can’t come in. I still get upset when I think about them. The nursing home organised counselling for us and I’ve done a few sessions. They really do look after us.
If it wasn’t for the team we have in here and my family, I don’t think I’d be able to do it. As for anyone with a loved one in a nursing home, hang in there. It’s going to get better.
Trish: For me, the hardest part of the last year was not being able to see my two granddaughters and the rest of my family. I had to see them through a window and I got a feeling of what it must be like for the residents I look after.
The first outbreak came unexpectedly, but it didn’t spread as fast as I thought it would. The second time around, it spread a little bit faster, but it was over much sooner.
I was asymptomatic when I tested positive for Covid. I self-isolated in a room at home for two weeks. It was very lonely, and again, I got a feeling of what it must be like for residents who aren’t seeing their families.
Some of the residents understood what was happening when the pandemic hit. So we explained it to them and then we let them see whatever was on TV. Mostly we tried to keep them busy with activities.
What was particularly hard was the people with strong dementia. They knew something was different and they had moments of realisation. You could see that they knew they weren’t getting visits. We organised FaceTime, but some families didn’t want to do it because it could agitate their loved one. It was one of the hardest feelings I’ve experienced in my life.
We’re through the worst of it now, thank god. We’ve done our vaccinations and the appreciation from families is so strong. They’ve been so kind and generous, sending us in cakes and cards. We really do feel like we’re heroes sometimes!
‘Numerous times a day, we know we have the virus in the back of the ambulance with us’
Kenneth O’Sullivan is a paramedic with the National Ambulance Service. The father of three lives in Killarney, Co Kerry
The Ambulance Service has been exceptionally busy since Christmas. We’re dealing with a lot of people who are Covid-positive, yet we don’t have the same level of anxiety we had back in March last year. We know the PPE protects us and we know we have a good supply of it.
Of course, there are numerous times a day when we know we have the virus in the back of the ambulance with us, so there’s still a real fear there, and a real fear of bringing it back home.
I didn’t see my parents for a lot of the year because I didn’t want to be infecting them. One of my daughters has special needs so I have to be a little bit extra-vigilant there too.
What we’ve found with call-outs recently is that a family member will meet you at the door and the first thing they’ll say is, “Do you know I’m Covid-positive?” or “Do you know we’re Covid-positive?”
We wear full PPE with masks and goggles so one of the first things I’ll say is, “Don’t take any notice of this outfit.” After that, you treat them with compassion. We take our precautions but, at the end of the day, everyone is human and we will treat the patient as if there was no Covid in the world. One thing we always say is, “If you treat the person you’re treating like your mother or your grandmother, you won’t go far wrong.”
The patients’ families can be quite anxious and there are often tears and raw emotion when their loved one is being put into the back of the ambulance. Traditionally, someone old or frail would have a son or daughter who would travel with them in the ambulance. It’s a great sense of support to them, but that’s not possible anymore.
When you think about it, you don’t know what way it’s going to go and the family knows that. The reality is they may not see their loved one in good health again — and that’s sobering.
We have to try our best to comfort that person as well as possible but you’ve got all of this protective gear on, which makes communication difficult. Speaking is only one part of communication and an awful lot of the other stuff — body language and facial expressions — is getting lost under the PPE.
Sometimes you’re in the back of an ambulance in a space that is two-and-a-half metres by three metres for a number of hours because the hospital is under pressure. That’s the thing people don’t see.
Only one of my colleagues in Kerry got Covid and I suppose that goes to show the advice that was given by the HPSC and pushed out through the National Ambulance Service seems to have worked.
Credit to all the paramedics and advanced paramedics that I work with — they’ve been really diligent and careful throughout the year.
‘We were taking pictures of the coffin and sending them to a family member on WhatsApp’
Funeral director Padraig Ward lives in Monaghan with his wife and three children
The Easter bank holiday weekend was the toughest. Every time the phone rang, it seemed to be someone else with a funeral to arrange.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table on Easter Monday night. The phone goes again, and it was the same family we had dealt with earlier on in the week. When you go out and meet people again, in the same circumstance… you’d want to be made of stone not to get upset.
The restrictions have relaxed a bit now, but at that stage family members weren’t even allowed to touch the coffin. Their loved ones passed away in a hospital; the remains were double-bagged, placed in a coffin, sealed and brought straight to the cemetery, or an area in the funeral home cordoned off for keeping remains until a time was suitable for burial. You’d see the family at the cemetery.
What we were doing at that point was taking pictures of the coffin with the name plate and sending them to a family member on WhatsApp. The family member would come back and say, “It means so much to get that picture.” That’s a long way away from the personal approach we usually provide.
A lot of people were distressed when they heard they couldn’t have a traditional Irish wake. They weren’t getting to open the door to the public and get opportunities to hear stories about their mother or father. People just missed the conversations and the storytelling.
There are what we call in the funeral industry “funeral families”. They know everything about funerals; they know what funeral director is doing what funerals. And for these families, it’s very important for them to put on a good funeral. That was taken away from them — they didn’t get that opportunity.
They didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. They didn’t get a chance to grieve. They had to take it for granted that we placed their loved one in a coffin.
It was just totally against the way we were trained to look after people.
‘When I was going out to work, everyone else was at home, so I felt like I was going out to bring Covid back to my street’
Eimear O’Connor is a community midwife based in Holles Street, Dublin. She lives with her partner and two children in Naas, Co Kildare
Thinking back over the year, it almost feels like a blur. I work 13-hour shifts, three to four times a week, in the hospital, with at least one night a week on call for home births.
Our daughter was only 14 months old when the pandemic hit so it wasn’t realistic for me to self-isolate from my immediate family. There was a stage where I’d rush to the shower the minute I came home, being careful not to touch the banister on the way up the stairs.
We had to let the childminder go for a couple of months and juggle minding the kids between us. Both my parents and my partner’s parents are vulnerable, so I stopped visiting them very early on. I think I saw my parents four times last year.
Like a lot of my colleagues, we didn’t have any childcare support. And I felt like I couldn’t ask my neighbours because I fell into that high-risk category.
When I was going out to work, everyone else was at home, so I felt like I was going out to bring Covid back to my street!
It’s been a tough year but I’m very proud of Holles Street and my colleagues for how we’ve handled it. Our postnatal home visits increased hugely due to patients wanting early discharge. In April, May and June, we changed our restrictions, and partners couldn’t be at postnatal at all, but as soon as women were in the labour ward, their partners could come up.
There were — and still are — lines of cars outside Holles Street. The partners have their duvets and flasks and they’re waiting for that phone call to come into the labour ward.
We maintained that throughout, and I know it hasn’t been like that in other maternity hospitals because their infrastructure doesn’t allow for it. That hurts me because I know how important it is to have a partner in the delivery room, especially if it’s your first child.
We moved our antenatal classes online fairly quickly and the first question women ask is, “Who will be with me?” There were a few women who decided to have home births, whereas before it wouldn’t have entered their heads. We had 11 home births in February, which is most certainly an increase.
We’re also dealing with a lot of women experiencing stress and anxiety. They have a lot going on, especially the women who might be homeschooling children with special needs.
I imagine our mental health team has had a huge influx — I know I referred a lot of people.
Home visits are also extra challenging these days. It’s difficult going into houses and trying to assist a woman with breastfeeding but trying to keep my distance at the same time. And then there are time restrictions — you can only spend 15 minutes so I sometimes have to leave and call them from the car. Meanwhile, you’re just waiting for that phone call to tell you that someone tested positive.
At the start of the pandemic, I definitely had a huge amount of fear and anxiety going to work, and guilt, I suppose, about the possibility of bringing it back to my family. But you just have to get over that.
I think that’s inbuilt in us, as health workers and frontline workers. There’s a level of challenge that you tend to rise to, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t take its toll.
‘My first thought was: how are we going to approach this?’
Sean Walsh is the deputy head porter at University Hospital Galway. The father of one lives in Oughterard
The busiest months in the hospital were March and April, and then December and January. One morning I went in at 8am and ended up getting home at 11.30pm that night.
I worked on Christmas Eve and then I was back in on Stephen’s Day... but it is what it is. I’m just one of those positive people who gets on with it. Two of my brothers are porters in the same hospital and whatever jobs we’re doing, we just get it done.
I’ve been working in the hospital for 20 years and my first thought when the pandemic hit was, “How are we going to approach this and deal with it?”
At the start, there was a lot of anxiety, being honest. People were scared, but everyone is up to speed now. As a manager, my approach is “lead by example”: lead from the front and just get into the middle of it. It’s all about the approach — we have a good team of 75 porters and we all just muck in.
We take staggered breaks and there’s a maximum of two people in the tearoom at one time.
All the porters bring a fresh change of clothes to work so we come home clean — some of the team have vulnerable people at home that they have to think about. We shower before we leave work every day.
My dad has a farm in Oughterard so I visit at the weekend and do the tasks that need to be done. I stay outside and he stays inside, and we chat through the window. I love getting into the fresh air and even though I walk about 20km around the hospital every day, I always go for a walk in the evening after work.
It means I go in the next day with a fresh mind, sleeves up and ready to go.
‘I got Covid in January... It knocked me for six’
GAA figure and father of three Dickie Murphy is a postal worker based in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford
When the pandemic hit, An Post decided that we were going to call to all elderly and vulnerable people, in every part of the country, to make sure they were OK.
I’d go to houses and ask, “Is there anything you need? Anything you want at all?” Some people just wanted milk and bread. They didn’t want you to do a full grocery shopping for them because they had family and friends helping them out.
Some people asked me to collect their pension or bring them a newspaper. For us, as postal workers, they seemed like simple things. But they were big things to them.
I’ve been working in the Ballymurn area for the last 35 years so I’d nearly know the dogs’ names at this stage! Normally, when you deliver post in the country, you just open the front door, walk in and leave the letters on the table, or you might be asked to stay for a cup of tea.
But that can’t happen anymore. We have to be very careful. During the first surge, some people kept their gates locked, which told us that something was wrong. Some people had notes up on the door saying, “Please don’t knock. Covid here.”
Then, all of a sudden, we got very busy — and we’re still busy now. People started buying online for Christmas in October and we had nearly 200pc more parcels than we had the year before.
I got Covid in January and it knocked me for six. I was in bed for seven or eight days with a terrible cough and I lost my sense of taste. I’m back in work now and I’m feeling better every day.
‘Pasta and tins of soup were just flying off the shelves’
Adrian O’Sullivan is the manager of Tesco in Rush, Co Dublin. He lives in Lucan with his wife and two children
The first few weeks of the pandemic were probably the hardest few weeks I’ve ever had in my career in Tesco. It was really, really tough. You can always plan for seasonal times like Christmas or Easter or Halloween, but this was totally unplanned and that’s what caught us by surprise.
We were getting throngs of customers coming into the shop and the products were just flying off the shelves. Pastas, tins of soup, the type of food to keep you going for a few weeks. The toilet paper was a strange one, to be fair — we were all baffled about what was going on.
But I suppose there was such uncertainty and it’s understandable, really, why people were concerned. At the start, it was all about the unknown and it was changing by the minute nearly.
You can see more normality in the shopping baskets these days. People are still buying a lot of baking products and beauty products like hair dye. Vitamins and wellness products are very popular and, with the restaurants closed, people are eating at home and treating themselves a bit better.
Rush is a really strong community and we’ve always got on really well with the town. Lots of customers come in and approach me or another manager and say, “Sorry, can I just stop you for a minute?” I think it might be a complaint or something but they say, “I just want to tell you how great you’re doing in this store and what a great asset you are to the town.”
One customer came in recently and dropped us in a load of apple tarts and cakes that she made at home, just to say thank you to all the colleagues in the shop. You get a great buzz out of little things like that. It just goes to show how appreciative people are.
‘In April, my practice had more cases than the whole of Carlow and Wexford put together’
Dr Antoinette Butler is a GP and mother of three based in Mullingar, Co Westmeath
Mullingar was hit hard with Covid right from the start. In April, my practice had more cases than the whole of Carlow and Wexford put together.
We were very full-on right from the beginning and that was both good and bad. It was bad because we were hit with the damn thing when we were all really frightened about it and we didn’t know much about it. The good thing is we took it very seriously, very quickly — as did most of the general population in Mullingar.
At the beginning, I just thought, “I’m going to get this, so the sooner the better.” I almost started preparing for my self-isolation situation. When I got home in the evenings, my husband basically wanted to spray me down with a power hose and insisted that I come in the back door.
I remember feeling emotionally exhausted getting into the car after work one evening and I thought, “I’m going to crack up if I don’t do something.” So I started cycling in and out to work. Then, in May, I started swimming in Lough Owel every day.
Our practice stayed open the whole way through the pandemic. We got a brand-new building in 2017 and one of the big considerations when we were designing it was infection control. It meant we could stay open safely — all the staff felt safe too. Plus, we felt very supported by the HSE and the ICGP.
Summer is traditionally our quietest time of year but this year was baloobas. There are five doctors here and we each saw at least 26-30 patients a day. Everyone we saw had five or six different issues because they hadn’t been to the doctor for six months or so.
We have quite a large elderly population in our practice and when they came out of lockdown the last time, a lot of them had become quite frail, which was kind of frightening. And at least the last time, they could have got out into their gardens.
We’re frightened about what’s coming our way after this lockdown. And we’re worried about the people who are soldiering on at home with something really serious that isn’t Covid, who might think we’re too busy or who don’t want to be annoying us.
The very people who should be contacting us aren’t.
At this stage we’re emotionally and physically exhausted, but everyone has really pulled together really well. As a practice, we would be much more united than we were this time last year. And as difficult as the pandemic has been, it’s very humbling to work as a GP through it.
‘I said goodbye to my nan through a video screen’
Social work team leader Patrice Reilly from Cavan was redeployed to work in nursing homes at the start of the pandemic
My normal role is on a HSE integrated-care multidisciplinary team working with over-65s. We take referrals from the hospital emergency department and GPs. The social work role is varied and includes supporting the person, and their family, with adjusting to changes in their health and function, and the loss and grief associated with this.
Beyond the very real threat of death and illness, the pandemic has led to much loss for over-65s and family carers. People’s social supports are limited, the isolation and loneliness greater.
Collaborating with Age Friendly Ireland and some colleagues, I have been involved in setting up a virtual day service for over-65s to try to address this. We have also provided tablets to nursing home residents to help them stay connected with their families. It has been inspiring to watch people engage with, and adapt to using, technology for the first time.
During the pandemic, I was also redeployed to work in nursing homes to be a communication link between the resident, their family members and the nursing home. This often involved supporting people in preparing for end-of-life. Some of my most difficult conversations involved talking to family members about what they felt their loved one’s end-of-life wishes would be if the worst were to happen... what words they would like staff to relay to their loved ones, memories they’d like shared with them in their absence.
There were days when I was close to tears during these conversations but it has been a real privilege to support people in some way. Social work has much to offer to nursing home residents and family members in general but especially during Covid-19, with the distress, uncertainty and loss that it brings. Like so many other families during Covid-19, my family has lost someone close too — my nan. She was in a nursing home and my last memory is saying goodbye to her through a video screen.
Ensuring families of nursing home residents are supported during these tough times has been especially important to me because of this.