Stepping up to the COVID frontline

Just 18 months ago, mum-of-two Sophie Graham quit her retail job of nine years to realise a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. She secured an assistant role at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital supporting the physio team and soon afterwards started an Access to HE Health course at Gateshead College. Now she’s been redeployed to the frontline where she’s working in critical care on the coronavirus wards. Sophie is just one example of the many students and trainees across the country who have stepped-up to care for people, here she shares her experience.

I know I’m not unique when I say that I can’t wait for life to be a little more normal. But while coronavirus is here, I’ve been given a very special opportunity to work on the frontline. Yes, at first it was daunting and I was scared; less than two years ago I was helping women into dresses at occasionwear store, Coast and now I’m helping to save lives in the middle of a global pandemic.

There’s only one way I’d describe my time working in critical care and that is a huge privilege. I’m so grateful that my job is to help people and care for them in their time of need, it’s definitely where I’m meant to be. And, as far as nursing training goes, this is possibly the best introduction anyone could have, it’s a massive learning experience. I’m taking away so much from the amazing nurses on Ward 6 and critical care at the QE; they are all superheroes and I’m constantly in awe.

I always knew deep down that I wanted to work in nursing. My mum Lesley was a nurse for more than 35-years until she retired in in 2012 and she inspired me so much. But changing career at this stage of my life was massive for me. I’m 37 now and I didn’t know where to start or how I would get onto a nursing degree. In 2018, I went to a jobs fair at the QE, where Mum had worked as a women’s health nurse and, luckily, I had enough experience to apply to become a rehab assistant in the physio department. I was successful and had been doing that job full-time for just over a year before being redeployed in March to the covid wards.

While working at the QE, I also got in touch with Northumbria University to find out how I could get onto their nursing degree, and that’s how I found out about the Access to Higher Education Health Diploma at Gateshead College. It’s a one-year programme that I started in September 2019 and it prepares you for uni. The course is really complex and studying while working full-time plus bringing up a young family has been intense to say the least! My teacher, Emma, has been amazing throughout and when the lockdown started, she switched to online teaching and support, helping us to finish our studies remotely. I have absolutely loved going to college and I’ve made some friends for life – many of us keep in touch and are sharing our experiences of working on the frontline right now.

What none of us could have foreseen was just how soon we’d be putting the knowledge and everything we’d learned at college into practice. The ‘humans against disease’ module specifically has really helped me to understand the decisions being made and treatments for coronavirus patients. At work I’m learning so much too, infection control is obviously really important and being a critical care nursing assistant, I’ve had some of the best training and experience using PPE.

I’m also experiencing how infection control impacts working practices. We’ve no circulated air or air conditioning on the wards and along with full PPE kit – scrubs, overalls, two pairs of gloves, hair net, visor and mask- our 13.5-hour shifts are hot and tiring. We take a personal break every three hours and that’s our opportunity to eat, drink and use the bathroom. It takes 15 minutes to both put on and take off all of the protective wear, so those breaks need to be used carefully as you’re then back in the controlled atmosphere on the ward.

The long shifts are nothing new for me, I work the same three-days as I did as a rehab assistant before being redeployed. Only now, rather than supporting patients as they are discharged, I’m helping to care for critically ill patients who have coronavirus. I’m responsible for taking patient blood pressure and temperature, repositioning our intubated patients and supporting nurses with anything they need, such as keeping their equipment stocked up.

The experience I’m getting along with my learning on the Access course, will give me a great advantage when I start the Nursing Science degree at Northumbria this September. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get where I am now, and I know there’s still more to come, but being on the frontline has made me more certain than ever that nursing is where I belong. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to follow in my mum’s footsteps and fulfil a lifelong ambition to care for others.

For anyone considering a change of career, I would completely recommend the course I did at Gateshead College. While returning to education was a big step for me, I was made to feel very at ease. Despite there being a mix of people of different ages, backgrounds and circumstances, we all had one thing in common – we want to help people. We got on so well, I enjoyed every single minute. Above all else, the Access to HE qualification is my key to starting uni and I’m a step closer to becoming a qualified nurse.