COVID-19: Carer on the devastating impact of the pandemic on care homes

The interview nearly never happened. But thank God it did.

It is one of the most compelling and powerful accounts of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on a care home I have heard.

Bridgitte Caner has devoted her life to care work. It’s difficult – emotionally and physically draining.

But nothing could have prepared Bridgitte for the devastation she was about to experience.

“I’ve cared for over 30 years, (but) I’ve never ever in my whole life seen anything like this,” she said as she began to tell me about the trauma inflicted on her.

We had been filming at a day centre for adults with a learning disability to make a film on the challenges facing social care.

I was told Bridgitte wanted to be interviewed – wanted to tell her story, but I was unsure whether the report we were working on should revisit what had happened in care homes – a story that has been told throughout this health crisis.

But Bridgitte had travelled a long way to meet us and I did not want to let her down.

We lined up two chairs in a now-disused theatre at the far end of the building, pulled the black curtains round, threw the spotlight on her and she began.

“We knew there was a virus out there,” she said. “Everyone was on tenterhooks. We thought it would spread like wildfire, which it did.

“As soon as the first case was discovered we shut the doors – stopped all visitors. Obviously, staff were still coming in and out. Unfortunately, a lot of our residents ending up having COVID.” 

Despite the best efforts of the staff it was only a matter of time before the silent, invisible killer found its way into the home and infected the first resident.

This was back in March. Bridgitte and her colleagues had been watching in horror as the pandemic spread across the country.

They knew the virus would target the elderly and the most vulnerable; the residents in their care at Birchwood Care Home in Newbury, Berkshire.

“You couldn’t see it coming,” she said. “It didn’t matter what you did or how you tried to avoid it. We were going by government guidelines wearing PPE (personal protective equipment). We were keeping people isolated but obviously it got in and took out quite a few residents.”

I understood now. Bridgitte did not want to just tell me her story. She needed to tell me.

This anguish, this grief that she has been carrying round with her all this time – it had to come out. It was important to let people know the impact COVID had had on her and all the other carers who were struggling with their burden.

“It was just bedlam,” she continued. “One fell, then another one. We were tired, we were scared, we felt at a loss. It didn’t matter what you were doing, you were still losing people.

“Obviously, people were not coming in so you are sat holding someone’s hand. You would go home in the evening, come back and you’ve lost three more.”

The isolation of dying alone without the tender comfort of a family member makes COVID-19 doubly cruel. It robs loved ones of the chance to say goodbye. Bridgitte was determined not to let this happen to the residents in her care.

“I held their hand. I held their hand. I’m not letting anyone I care for die by themselves,” she told me.

I asked her if they knew. “Did they understand”?

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “You had people crying, saying just let me die. I don’t want to be here.

“Some had gone further – there was no response while I was comforting them. Listening to them cry, listening to their breathing change.”

Until this point in the interview Bridgitte had managed to hold it together. It was an emotionally charged account. But the memories came flooding back and she broke down.

Crying now, Bridgette told me her residents were more than just people she cared about.

“We became like their family,” she said. “Some of us spent more time at work than we spent at home. We looked after them like one of our own. It was like losing our own. Day after day.”

The care home lost a quarter of its residents to the pandemic. Thirteen vulnerable lives taken by a relentless virus.

“I was caring for three gentleman who were all seriously, seriously very poorly,” Bridgitte explained.

“To listen to someone choking. You know…and clearing their throats. Being hot, delirious. Crying. And then coming back next morning and all three had gone. It’s just…”

Her voice trails off mid-sentence. She composes herself, rubs her palms over her tear-soaked eyes and then tries to make me understand the difficulty of breaking the news of a death to a loved one.

She said: “I had to tell one lady that her partner had passed away. We thought he was getting better – the youngest man in the home. I gave him his medication in the morning, nipped out and then was told he was gone.

“She didn’t speak English. To hear her scream and cry… I wouldn’t wish it on anybody”.

The sense of grief felt by Bridgitte is shared by her colleagues and staff at Birchwood Care Home and the same sense of loss will be felt in care homes right across the country.

Bridgitte has been incredibly brave to share her pain with us so we can begin to understand the trauma being suffered by carers everywhere.

But she is, understandably, terrified she may have to relive her ordeal.

“I’ve cared for over 30 years,” she said. “I’ve never, ever in my whole life seen anything like this. 

“You are scarred and scared. There is another (wave) coming. We are better prepared (but) it’s going to come again. I don’t want to go through it again.”

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