COVID-19: Student nursing through the pandemic

Adult Nursing graduate, David Rothwell, was part of the final year nursing cohort who helped to combat COVID-19 during the first wave of the deadly pandemic in the UK. Below, he provides some brilliant insight in to what life was like as a student nurse during those horrendous first few months… 

I first heard of COVID, like most others, over Christmas 2019 and brushed it off as the news exaggerating a seasonal flu. A short few months later and we had all heard the horror stories from Italy and the Nursing at Manchester had been completely restructured.


How the Course Changed

Our final exams, assignments, and dissertations were cancelled; instead we were given the choice to “opt-in” to a paid, extended placement, in which we would lose our supernumerary status. Or, to “opt-out” and complete a shorter dissertation and a shorter, unpaid placement. We were told that we were free to pick either option as a way to complete our degree and that the University was adopting a “no disadvantage” policy.

In March, my friends and I were surprised to watch the health minister declare that 18,000 student nurses were to be deployed to the “front lines” the following week. We did not know where we were being deployed to. and everything felt very much out of our control.

Eventually, those who “opted out” were told that this could not be facilitated and were given a new choice: opt in and work during the pandemic or put the course on hold for a full year.


Bank shifts during the pandemic

Many student nurses like myself work part time as “bank” healthcare assistants (HCAs). In April, I worked a few shifts on what used to be a medical ward. When I arrived for the first shift I was informed the ward was now an assessment unit for COVID-19 patients.

Whilst in the “COVID” bays, we were to wear normal disposable aprons, gloves, and surgical masks (not very effective). Only when a patient was confirmed as positive were staff to wear the full gown and FFP3 mask (more effective). The trouble with this policy was that roughly 80% of patients being assessed ended up testing positive, according to the ward clerk.

The reason I, and many others, were able to pick up so many shifts on this unit was due to the number of permanent staff off sick. It wasn’t too difficult to see why: by the evening of my final bank shift of the week, I had a high temperature. This was followed by a week at home with flu symptoms.


The extended placement

Eventually, I started my final, and now paid, placement on an ICU. The standards of PPE and infection control measures were a lot stricter than the ward I had previously worked on. Myself and the other student nurses on the unit were assigned registered nurses to work with each day and we were able to participate in the care of both non-COVID and COVID patients.

The Patients

Working within the COVID zones really brought to life the claims I had been hearing in the news, especially in regards to the disproportionate number of BAME people and healthcare workers affected by the virus. In one zone I remember there being a consultant opposite a GP, with a student nurse in an adjacent zone. On other days, I noticed that almost all of the patients were of BAME backgrounds.

Aside from the difficulties of ventilating and treating these patients, there were other issues. One particularly sad factor was the restriction on visiting. Family members had no choice but to accept daily updates via telephone and the occasional Skype call with their intubated relative, mediated by nurses in full PPE (a mask and visor covering our faces). On one occasion I held an Ipad towards an intubated patient, whilst his wife prayed for him and told him how their children were waiting for him.


Finishing the Course

Eventually, rumours started to circulate of student nurses’ paid contracts being terminated a month early, meaning that many students would have to complete their required NMC clinical hours as unpaid-students again. Thankfully, this never materialised in the end and we were free to continue being paid.

This rumour coincided with a circulating letter in which the conservative Care Minister stated that student nurses were “not deemed to be providing a service.” Whether this was just poor wording, or a contrived misjudgement is unclear. However, when read by 18,000 student nurses whose future was declared to the nation before they were told themselves, many of whom had volunteered to care for patients at their own risk, an understandable backlash ensued.

Entering the Workforce

Many final year students, including myself, have now finished their respective nursing programmes and will soon start working as registered nurses, an exciting prospect that we have worked towards for three years. Working during the pandemic has allowed me to witness truly inspiring care from nurses, doctors, HCAs, physios, pharmacists, dieticians, and so on. It is a privilege to work alongside such an amazingly diverse group of professionals, all with a common goal of excellent patient care in mind.

In these unprecedented times, many things have changed and we have been required to roll with the changes. Hopefully the public and government perception of the value of healthcare workers will change too.

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