What extraordinary times we are living through.
A generation grown up learning about and studying stories about World Wars, Cold Wars and Great Depressions are now living through a catastrophe of global proportions decimating lives and communities.
Just like during previous catastrophes, it is individuals, and most definitely not governments – with a few exceptions of those run by women – who are at the forefront of the battle.
From the Tommies and brave nurses in the trenches of the Western Front to the 1970’s peace activists in English villages and border guards in 80’s Berlin, it has always been the ordinary men and women who have stepped up and made enormous sacrifices to help and alleviate suffering.
In Britain, ethnic minorities have been at the forefront of a vast effort played by the National Health Service. Hundreds of thousands of individuals, from 111 call operators to surgeons have gone forth to fight an unknown and unseen enemy.
And many of those people have been women, including members of Indian Ladies in UK.
Over the next few weeks we will be featuring individual stories of the heroic efforts made by these amazing women.
We start with Rupa Dave.
Rupa, 54, is a specialist in treating skin cancers with plastic surgery and she works in Swansea, Wales. It was reported this week that there has been a dramatic decline in the number of cancer referrals at hospitals and people seeking treatment for suspected cancer due to concerns that they would contract Covid-19.
Rupa is part of a family of medical professions – her daughter is a junior doctor in an A&E at a major London hospital.
Even as Rupa continued to work, her greatest concern was for her daughter.
“She frequently mentioned she and her colleagues did not have PPE, nor was there any clarity as to what was in fact adequate PPE. She further continued that it seems that the decision what to use was reflected by what they actually had in supply at that time.”
“We knew we were about 2 weeks behind London and the situation started getting more real in the middle of March for us in Swansea. The hospital attendances started dropping and there was an eerie silence in the hospital as we all relayed stories of desperation from our colleagues around the UK.
“On the 15th of March, I was told that all appointments were to be cancelled for 6 weeks. I was astonished. All cancer appointments, including skin cancers? It was an unequivocal ‘yes’. Patients were sent texts, letters to inform them of the decision. We were told to turn patients away if they attended (in case they did not know about the cancellation).
“It was draconian. I made the decision that if a patient turns up, we would ensure that they were well (by asking a set of 5 pre-decided questions) and would attend to their query. Within hours, I was told I could not do that and I had to turn patients away.
“We started speaking to our patients on the phone. We explained the situation and they were most understanding. We assessed them on the phone. If they needed a prescription, we wrote one and asked them to collect from the hospital pharmacy. We asked patients with lesions to send us photos so we could assess them and give advice accordingly.
“Some of my colleagues were in a state of panic including one who was convinced that we were all going to die. PPE was in short supply and we had to use it wisely. All our nurses had to retrain to go and work in the wards. Their fears and anxieties were palpable and they needed a lot of support.
“Over the next few weeks, we worked through our waiting list and lists of patients whose appointments for treatment had been cancelled. We drew up lists of patients whose treatment could not be deferred any further and worked with the management to allow us to bring them in for treatment.
“Fortunately we have had sufficient PPE. Understanding the correct way of wearing it and taking it off, making sure the nursing staff feel safe and also have access to same PPE as me whilst operating has been difficult but we have achieved it. It has been challenging to speak to elder patients without their relatives with all the PPE on. It is extremely tiring to wear all the PPE for the working day, to make sure you are carrying out your duty safely, stay on top of your fear of catching it and then come home and interact with family discussing the day’s events.
“Even though my husband and I could have come away from patient facing activities due to our risk factors, we both decided that that was not an option. We did and continue to take all the precautions at work and in the house and there is a quiet pride that we are carrying on with our duties.
“A lot of patients did not want to come in. We know a lot of patient’s’ conditions have got worse because they decided that the risk of catching Covid 19 in hospital was too high.
“We saw a huge increase in the case load of the clinical ethics committee (Ethics committees offer assistance in addressing ethical issues that arise in patient care and facilitate sound decision making that respects participants’ values, concerns, and interests) workload as medics tried to sensibly ration supplies proactively. I came across the concept of Death cafe (www.deathcafe.com) – I have attended 4 virtual meetings so far and have found it very supportive and helpful. We do not discuss death openly and hence are afraid of it. The meetings take place all over the world and I would urge the readers to at least attend one.
“On a personal note, it has been a challenge. My 85 year old mother-in-law lives with us and our younger daughter came home from university. My husband was working on the Covid 19 ward. All this were high risk factors for my mother-in-law even before the higher risk for BAME people was known. Stories of unavailable ventilators scared us should mum catch the virus and need to go into hospital.
“We debated if he should go and live in the hotel provided by the hospital. This would mean we would not see him at all. We felt that the risk of mental health damage to all of us especially to mum was too high a price to pay. Fortunately we have a big house and he moved into the guest bedroom to live and sleep. He entered through the back door and went straight for a shower. His clothes had to be bagged separately and washed separately. We had hand-sanitizers everywhere in the house.
“He came to the dining room to eat but sat at one end of the table and we all at the other end. He had to be served everything (a novel concept in our house because we all serve ourselves normally). As soon as he got up and left, his seat and the part of the table had to be wiped down. It brought home the uncomfortable stories that I had heard from my friends growing up – how they had to maintain social distancing at the time of the monthly periods!
“We were allowed to exercise outside for 30-60 minutes in Wales and we made absolutely sure to follow that. The beautiful early summer weather was a bonus. There was an unspoken resolve to face the adversity but also a dread of ‘what if?’ Every day without developing symptoms was a relief. We watched the daily briefings zealously – it was a while before we realised that Wales was mapping its own way separate from England.
“Nearly 10 weeks after the first lockdown was announced, we still follow all the strict separation methods for my husband. Every action we take, we evaluate if it is safe for mum. She on her part has been stoic. Although she is worried and stressed about the implications of catching the virus, she has coped well. My younger daughter has followed all the rules to the last letter. She has baked once a week to send cakes/cookies to the hospital staff. She has tried a variety of different activities. We all have read a lot. I have stood in a queue with my daughter at superstores for groceries. Although I could have used my NHS card, I haven’t.
“My elder daughter cannot travel from London so the challenge has been to support her from a distance. We have not seen her for more than 3 months now. At a very early stage in her career she has seen death and so much of it. I can only pray and hope that she comes out stronger out of this. We have no idea how this will impact on our children in the long run.”
If you too have a story about dealing with Covid-19, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org