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COVID-19: Harrowing reality of a coronavirus ward – where exhausted medics fight to keep patients alive and some don’t make it

“We just all hope that we will live, and come out of it,” says Tony Brown, a 73-year-old lorry driver, clinging to life in Barnet Hospital.

He spoke for every patient in the room – some of them unconscious or wearing CPAP masks, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure.

Nurses describe the high-pressure masks as like sticking your head out of a car window at 90 miles an hour and holding your mouth open. That’s the intensity of oxygenated air needed to make up for what COVID-19 is taking away.

I met Tony on Thursday afternoon, and when I called his wife Linda on Saturday to tell her we planned to use the interview on Sky News, she told me Tony hadn’t made it.

He died on Friday night.

It is the dreadful curse of this illness – that it doesn’t just kill, it isolates you first. In sealed off rooms, behind warning tape, thousands like Tony are fighting quiet, lonely battles.

Their only company is medics in gowns and masks, eyes behind Perspex visors.

Loved ones should know that the care our NHS workforce is providing is what you’d want – diligent, respectful and unrelenting. But, in the darkest moment, it can’t replace a wife, a son, a daughter, at the end of the bed.

That’s what I learned from Tony.

Linda has given consent for me to tell you what Tony said.

I happened to walk into his world on his last full day on Earth. We spoke amid the hiss of high flow nasal oxygen tubes, helping him to breathe, as he described how he was feeling.

“Absolutely terrible. It’s very, very frightening. I’ve had some very bad nights, very worrying nights. Twice I went to ring my wife, to tell her I weren’t coming [back]. It is very hard.”

He added. “If people would have taken a lot more care when this come out and hadn’t ignored it, we wouldn’t be such a mess we’re in.

“We wouldn’t have had so many deaths, so many people who are critically ill. And the NHS are fantastic, brilliant.”

As we spoke his voice got weaker. He was convinced he’d caught the virus at work, a key worker delivering bread.

He blamed people for not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing.

He told me how much he missed his wife Linda. “Oh I miss her,” he hadn’t seen her for two weeks.

“But I hope to one day. Hopefully, I will. That’s all I want now. I don’t want anything else in life.”

His voice trailed off. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. We didn’t talk much longer.

Before I left, he was on the phone to his beloved wife – he could at least hear her voice.

Barnet Hospital has seen a doubling in COVID patients compared to the first wave in March. Divisional director and consultant nurse at the hospital Sarah Stanley says that the average age of COVID patients this time around is 59 – compared to about 70 back in March.

Earlier in the week, I had been at the Royal Free Hospital and it too had been reaching the limits of its capacity.

The title “Royal” was granted to the Free hospital by Queen Victoria for its fight against the cholera epidemic of the 1800s. Now, nearly every floor of this 12-storey building contained patients with COVID.

The operations room recorded over 300 infected patients in the Royal Free on Wednesday, a lower figure than their peak in spring 2020 – however this time they had far more non-COVID patients, meaning the pressures were higher.

More than a quarter of patients who had the virus, that’s more than 80 of them, were on ventilators.

Dr Mike Spiro, an intensive care consultant told me London hospitals were close to full and they had been considering transferring patients to the Midlands.

He said: “We’ve seen a huge number of really, really sick patients. So, there is a limit to the critical care capacity in London. Not just physical space, but also nursing staff numbers, and the ability to care for those patients.

“So, we’re at a situation within the whole of London at the moment whereby we are having to consider transferring patients out, long range, to outside of London, which is something obviously, we’ve never had to do before.”

He said: “One of the challenges is finding patients who are stable enough to move.

“The COVID patients in general are pretty unstable – when they get moved around and obviously a long-range transfer, you have to make sure you’ve got a patient who’s going to withstand being moved and not set them back significantly in the course of their illness.”

Intensive Care used to be contained to the fourth floor of the Royal Free – now it’s across three storeys.

On the third floor, what in normal times is a recovery room for surgery patients, has now been adapted.

They’ve had to double bed numbers in what is quite a cramped, hot room. The lined-up patients are mostly unconscious with tubes coming from their mouths or neck, staff at the bed constantly monitor the machines.

Nurses who would normally offer one-to-one care, now have a least three patients under their watch. Specialist ITU nurse Nicolas Agudo sums up the mood.

“This is hell,” he says. “We cannot continue like this, we need to ask people to please contribute, stay home.

“I do understand people want to get together, you know and see their relatives. This is the result. I feel like I want to cry in many moments. I mean, I can’t do my job properly.”

He adds: “A lot of people are passing away, and you have to keep doing your job when you have a gentleman or a lady that is passed away and is lying next to you… and prioritising my care, sometimes I cannot really help somebody with basic nursing care, like hygiene.

“I have to prioritise. Sometimes, it comes to the point where I have to just keep my patients alive.”

Army medics have been drafted in to help at the hospital, as have medical students, even surgeons are acting as nurses. Lucy Barker, a consultant from Moorfields Eye Hospital, was spending her day off wrapped in PPE, clearing airways for patients on the ward.

Next to her, Evelyn Griffin and Patricia Terrer, two therapists who would normally work with special needs children in the community, were putting mittens on for a 41-year-old COVID patient to stop her pulling at the tubes.

On top of that, specialists from every corner of the hospital would visit, offering their expertise.

Standing next to one bed was consultant interventional cardiologist, Dr Roby Rakhit. He explained the patient’s condition.

“She had this major bleed, unexpected bleed yesterday, which then led to cardiac arrest and then obviously, she didn’t have the same reserves that others with a normal heart would have,” he says. “We’re just concerned about that. So, we’re going to make a reassessment.”

Then he reminds me that COVID requires more than just the attention of intensive care specialists.

He says: “The main ones are respiratory, cardiology and infectious diseases, but actually everyone has a role to play because COVID is a multi-system disease. We see kidney issues, we see liver issues, we see clots.

“And we see heart attacks and and apart from the devastating effects it can have on the lung.”

Amid this intense and often heart-breaking scene, there are moments of elevation. On the fourth floor, a medical student Helen Papamastassiou spends all day FaceTiming patients’ families.

Often this means holding up a screen to someone who is unconscious as the family talk, play music, sing, or pray to an unresponsive loved one.

But we happen to arrive for a special moment – the first time patient Nicolae Ursachi responded to his daughter’s call since he’d gone into intensive care on 6 December.

His daughter Ana held up a grandchild and Nicolae lifted heavy hands to wave at the young face. Ana was elated.

“We never lost hope,” she tells me.

“We just prayed, we thank God and we prayed again and for everybody there you take care of him. God help us, he’s a miracle and we just thank to God.”

On the eighth floor of the hospital, a step down from intensive care, another patient Sidali Yousfi was slowly becoming less dependent on the equipment that is helping him to breathe.

He says: “I had terrible nights at the beginning upstairs. It’s the end of the world, apocalypse. Honestly, it’s the apocalypse.

“My chest felt very tight. You feel very cold in the brain. And lots of panic.

Then after procedures, the nurse helped me, doctor, they done what they could do. They saved my life. I’m here.”

But he adds: “This is really serious. You have to take it seriously. I am one of the people who ignored all the messages. Sometimes I was saying this is not true. But this is true. It can kill you.”

It’s a stark warning and indeed, in the basement of the hospital inside the mortuary, a red asterisk next to the names on the fridge doors, marks the patients who have died in the wards upstairs with COVID. This mark is by nearly every name.

Here anatomical pathology technologist, Meritxell Miret, in her 20s, tells me: “It’s a bit heart-breaking coming every day to do this, and still have people telling you, to your face, that this is not real, or that this is just the flu.”

The mortuary manager Laura McMinn, working alongside Meritxell, has noticed a reduced age in the people coming downstairs.

She says: “The first time [in spring 2020] it was definitely older patients, but it seems more varied this time. It seems to be a much wider age group of patients that we’re getting into our care.

“It’s more patients in their 50s and 60s that we’re seeing this time rather than patients in their 70s, 80s, 90s, like we were first time.”

She adds: “I mean, at 50, 60 years, you’re still working… you’ve got a career. You’ve got a retirement. You’ve got the rest of your life ahead of you, and then suddenly, you don’t.”

Patients here are looked after with the same care as they were upstairs. Meritxell says: “We care for patients, they’re patients, they’re not bodies. They’re not cadavers. They’re still patients.”

It sums up the attitude within the walls of both Barnet Hospital and the Royal Free.

If this virus could be beaten by round-the-clock, relentless care, then it would be done for. But it can’t. Not every time. It is tragic to think there are now nearly 100,000 people in the UK, like Tony Brown, who have had their lives cut short.

And hundreds of thousands more, like his wife Linda, just beginning to grieve.

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