East Sussex’s chief nurse reflects on ‘emotional’ and distressing’ year fighting Covid-19

Exactly one year ago, the unexpected happened and the lives of the entire nation changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the first lockdown. Those working for the NHS through the crisis were hit hardest as they bravely battled on the frontline to save lives - coping with great change and often risking their own lives to help those who had fallen seriously ill with the virus.

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 9:55 am
Covid warriors on the Jevington Ward at Eastbourne DGH
Covid warriors on the Jevington Ward at Eastbourne DGH

Here, one year on, we look back on the past 12 months and pay tribute to the wonderful NHS staff by taking a glimpse inside our East Sussex hospitals to explore the roller coaster journey they have endured.

Vikki Carruth, chief nurse for East Sussex Healthcare Trust, works across Eastbourne, Hastings, Bexhill and Rye hospitals. She is also responsible for infection control and has had a 32-year career within the NHS.

She reflects on how desperately hard and emotional the past year has been for the NHS team across East Sussex.

An important message from the team in Rye

She said: “This time last year I was having conversations with people about the virus but there were some that were not always taking it seriously.

“Some people would say ‘it is just like the flu’ or ‘it is a fuss about nothing’.

“This time last year is was about preparations.”

Vikki said that while the first wave wasn’t as severe as they had expected or planned for, the latest wave had a massive effect within our local healthcare trust.

Celebrations in Hastings as an elderly man starts to recover from the virus

The Kent variant swept through East Sussex and put both Eastbourne DGH and The Conquest in Hastings under immense pressure. This led to a difficult few months and something that has taken its toll on NHS staff locally.

Vikki said: “In December, things took off exponentially. It wasn’t a slow increase, it was sudden, huge and almost like a tsunami.

“It was absolutely nothing like the first wave. In the peak, during January, between 50 and 60 per cent of all of our beds [across the East Sussex Healthcare Trust] had people who had tested positive.

“There were, at one point, 450 Covid cases across the trust.

Staff from the Irvine Ward in Bexhill

“Outside the hospitals, the numbers in the local population testing positive for the virus were huge.

“Those numbers we were hearing about across the press were very, very real and we were very much feeling that.

“Most of our staff live locally and they too were affected by that. We had huge numbers affected.

“December and January were incredibly difficult and it was like nothing I have ever experienced during my 32 years in the health service.

Vikki Carruth, chief nurse for East Sussex Healthcare Trust

“It was the duration that made it so difficult. It wasn’t just days or weeks, it was a prolonged period and it had a huge impact.

“Staff have been tearful. I have been tearful. I have cried with staff. They are not crying for themselves but for the impact it has had.

“It has been very distressing and very exhausting. We are all exhausted from it, everyone, but it is not just physical it is very much about the emotional impact.”

Vikki explained staff were receiving support for their emotional wellbeing, while working through the pandemic and in to the future.

She said: “We are now looking to the future and we are being positive but we don’t want to forget, as much as some of us may like to, what has happened over the past year. We much acknowledge the difficulties.

“Of course, we have learned a lot in the last year too.”

Additional hygiene, social distancing measures and wearing face coverings both in the community and our hospitals have seen levels of infections such as flu and norovirus plummet this winter.

Vikki says that while many of the stringent hygiene measures were already in place long before the pandemic, the crisis serves as a stark reminder of how important those measures are and she says that should be remembered in peace time.

She said: “I think we will see masks, especially in the winter, for a little while yet but of course we all want to return to some normality. We don’t want to work with masks all the time forever.

“One of the really difficult things has been to restrict visitors. That has been very difficult and distressing and something that we will look forward to easing as soon as it is safe to do so.”

All staff within the NHS have had to cope with huge change and work in departments they may not have imagined, often in addition to their usual jobs. The pandemic has also seen retired NHS staff called back to help cope with the demand.

Vikki’s admiration for her fellow NHS staff working across our East Sussex hospitals is clear.

She said: “I’m hugely proud of all our staff and not just the doctors and nurses but the hundreds that were redeployed.

“I am enormously proud of each and every one of them and the strength they have shown.

“The camaraderie has been amazing to witness – it really is quite extraordinary.”

The community has come together in support for the NHS throughout the past year, most notably with people across Britain clapping on their doorsteps during the first lockdown.

People also decorated the windows of their homes with rainbows to offer hope and many were emblazoned with a message of thanks for our health service.

Charities, businesses, community groups and even individuals have thanked the NHS staff with acts of kindness, care packages, priorities, free meals and simple messages of thanks.

Many staff in East Sussex say they have been personally touched and moved by the support from the public during what has been the biggest challenge faced by the NHS in history.

Vikki said: “The support from the local communities has been amazing.

“It was hugely kind and supportive and that meant a huge amount to staff and was massively appreciated.

“It would be really hard to pick just one thing, as it has all meant so much, but we received a lot of cards, pictures and letters which we really appreciate.

“We have them all up on the walls. Some were from children and it just meant a great deal and we are very grateful.

With spring coming and the hope of brighter times ahead, Vikki said: “The final plea has to be that while the health service is still here for everybody, we always have been here for everybody and that will not change, we need people to stick to the restrictions.

“We are all fed up but if people can do as they are being asked and follow the rules that is such an important help and is hugely appreciated.”