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Health workers with lingering symptoms fear loss of supports

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FUTURE CONCERNS: Phil Ní Sheaghdha of INMO. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

FUTURE CONCERNS: Phil Ní Sheaghdha of INMO. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

FUTURE CONCERNS: Phil Ní Sheaghdha of INMO. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Nurses and healthcare workers fear they will still be living with the impact of Covid-19 themselves long after the pandemic has ended, with many still suffering from debilitating conditions months after contracting the virus.

More than 11,300 healthcare workers have become infected since March. While many recovered fully from the effects of Covid-19 and were able to return to work or resume life as normal, increasing numbers are suffering with long-term illnesses associated with the virus.

One nurse who has been unable to work for seven months after she contracted Covid-19 was left with complications limiting her ability to walk and move freely because of chronic fatigue. She has also experienced incidences of "brain fog", difficulty in breathing and has found her quality of life limited after contracting the virus while working on a Covid-19 ward at a hospital in Leinster.

The nurse, who asked not to be named because she feels "there would be a mark against me when I go back to work", is aged in her 20s and was healthy with no underlying medical conditions before she tested positive for Covid-19 after contracting the virus at work last April.

"Working on a Covid ward is the most stressful thing I have ever done. People were so sick and getting sicker so quickly. It was like a war-zone," she said.

"When a person died, we were the last ones with them. The families weren't allowed in so we had to put them in the clothes the families wanted them in and put in anything they wanted with them, a teddy or whatever, and then zip up the body bag and that was it."

She was aware there were cases worse than her own. She did not need to be hospitalised and was able to self-isolate at home for three weeks. Since then, she continues to have symptoms and sees a counsellor to help her overcome the trauma.

"I still have fatigue. It feels like I ran a marathon yesterday. I get palpations a lot. Anytime I walk or get dressed, my heart-rate rises. I have to take an inhaler now for the breathlessness and I get this mind fog. I could be reading a book, and if you asked me what the last chapter I read was about I would struggle to tell you."

Her condition means she is unable to work. She struggles to put a timeline in place for when she may be able to return.

"I am worried about when or if it will be possible. I do see improvements over the past few weeks, but it is still not anywhere near where it should be. In work, we are walking and running around for 13 hours a day. Even if I was able to do that, my mind fog is not good enough. I can't concentrate or multi-task. It could be another three months, six months, a year or I might never be able to go back to work. I don't know."

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The HSE does not have data on the number of staff who have been off sick with long Covid, but Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said more staff are spending months out of work with long-term effects after contracting Covid-19.

"Sadly this is not an uncommon story. Over 11,000 healthcare workers in Ireland have tested positive for Covid-19. Many face long-term or ongoing symptoms. They range from migraines and fatigue, to ongoing cardiac complications.

"For now, special Covid-19 leave is being used to support them. But even once the pandemic passes, many will still face issues. They need assistance, whether it's supporting a return to work or at the very least ensuring they do not face a loss of income or additional medical costs due to the virus.

"Frontline nurses and midwives have given so much in the fight against Covid-19. They went to work to care for patients, and took on great risks. They must be supported, not abandoned."

A spokeswoman for the HSE said because Covid-19 is such a new virus there is still much to be learned from patient experiences. She said staff can avail of a range of supports via its employee assistance programme, including stress management and staff psychosocial supports.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland


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