Hope and despair on busy London Covid ward

Callum PATON
·4-min read

Recovering from Covid-19 on a busy London hospital ward, Justin Fleming said he feared becoming just another statistic in Britain's mounting coronavirus death toll.

Wearing a transparent plastic nasal tube providing him with oxygen, Fleming, 47, said there was a "huge gap" in the general public's understanding of the pandemic and how it affects everyone from patients to doctors.

"It's not shown what happens to the patients," he said.

"And I think it's been a fundamental error because people haven't related to it. You see the figures, the daily figures, and they are nameless faces."

Fleming said in the hospital -- far from family and friends -- he was afraid of simply disappearing into the system.

"It's a fear because you have to be isolated. You feel like you just vanished," he said, a day before he was due to be discharged from King's College Hospital in the south of the city.

"I've got a three-year-old son, and you know that age, they forget. Memories wouldn't really be real, they'd be just from photos, and that played on my mind."

- Despair and desperation -

Britain has been one of the hardest hit countries in Europe by the pandemic. On Tuesday, it became only the fifth country in the world to surpass 100,000 deaths.

More than 37,000 patients are currently being treated in hospital and the state-run National Health Service (NHS) has been pushed almost to breaking point by a new variant of the disease -- believed to be 30 to 70 percent more transmissible.

On the wards at King's College Hospital, an eerie quiet is punctuated by the rhythmic sound of respirators and the beeping of monitors.

Doctors and nurses swathed in personal protective equipment -- gloves, masks, face shields -- move between the beds, checking lines and going through the labour-intensive process of turning unconscious patients onto their fronts.

Such "proning" helps to increase oxygen to their virus-afflicted lungs.

Berenice Page, a resuscitation coordinator, held a tablet over the bed of one patient, so a loved one could speak to them.

With hospitals closed to visitors to stop the close-contact spread of the virus, virtual meetings like these, facilitated by family liaison officers like Page, have become a lifeline for worried families -- even if the patient isn't awake.

"It is very hard when you see the despair and how desperate some of the relatives are, and I think we're often talking to people whose relatives are going to die," she said.

- Prioritising patients -

Britain is currently grappling with a rate of infection and mortality even higher than during the first peak of the outbreak last April.

"We're doing the best we can, and we're doing it in very difficult circumstances," said Jenny Townsend, a critical care consultant.

"We try and deliver as close to what we do normally, but occasionally because of the number of patients, we have to prioritise what we can and can't do."

The intensive care ward where she works has a normal capacity for 16 patients. Currently it has 30 beds full, with two patients sharing each bay.

Intensive care nurses, who would normally give one-to-one patient care can now give care to as many as four patients at one time.

Townsend, though, said she thought there was "light at the end of the tunnel" with vaccines now rolling out in Britain.

More than seven million people have been given a first dose since the country's largest ever vaccination programme began at the start of December.

- 'Long tail' -

The government aims to vaccinate nearly 15 million people by mid-February, and the entire adult population by October.

However, Townsend warned that she expected hospital admissions to continue at high levels because of the number of cases in the community.

"There's still admissions coming in every day to the hospital," she said.

"And, with what we know about Covid, you can be 10 days into your illness before your oxygen requirement goes up so much that you need the support of a ventilator.

"I think there's going to be a long tail from the admissions from the community before maybe intensive care calms down a bit."

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