On the coronavirus frontline: 'Some of my colleagues have died, I might be next, it's my biggest fear'
Joan Pons Laplana, a digital manager at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, moved back to the frontline working in intensive care when the coronavirus crisis began.
Mr Laplana, who was named Britain’s nurse of the year in 2018 and has previously campaigned to remain in the EU, came to the UK from Spain 20 years ago to work for the NHS.
He said: “This coronavirus crisis has had a big impact on me personally - physically, mentally and professionally, because of the loneliness of my work that I do now.
“Normally I love the human part of nursing, that's what I love most, and this coronavirus has taken all this human side away, we’ve tried to put it back with some technology but it's not easy, it's not the same.
“And I know I’ve had a lot of patients who have died with nobody next to them and nurses have come back in to hold their hands.
“You become, I have become, the brother, the sister, the husband, all the relatives of some of my patients because nobody can come in and I feel all the ups and downs of every patient.”
Mr Laplana said normally patients in the ICU would stay for perhaps a week while they stabalised before moving on, but the virus meant patients were staying much longer. He gave the example of one patient who was with him for more than 55 days.
“I ended up knowing their family inside out and the patients inside out,” he said.
“Most of them, they don't talk because they’re in intensive care but you see the progress and everything and emotionally that is very hard, very frustrating, because it takes a long time for people who have suffered to get better.”
He said he was especially proud of his hospital, which he said had “one of the best mortality rates in the country” with more than 80 per cent of those who were admitted recovering.
But Mr Laplana admitted he was “physically and mentally exhausted” and said he had sought support for his mental health due to what he had experienced.
“We work long shifts from seven o'clock in the morning to sometimes eight o'clock at night - or if you have the night shift the opposite - and you spend a lot of time on with the PPE on and that is very hot and warm.
“And you basically take over somebody's body, because what we do is to control all the organs of the people and we try to help them to beat the coronavirus while we make sure that the rest of the organs carry on working properly.
“And that takes a lot of time and also the fact that the patients are laying there, most at the beginning they're sedated and some of them are paralyzed, and it makes you feel very, very alone, because you work on your own, you have one to one with the patient.
“Don't forget every time that you do an action, every time that you have an interaction with the patient, there is a risk that you might get coronavirus.”
He said it meant him and his colleagues were constantly planning, alert, and “on edge”.
“And all of that is very, very hard because you know that the moment you relax, if you don’t follow proper procedure, you may get the coronavirus, and that’s my biggest fear.”
Mr Laplana, a father-of-three, said he would never forgive himself if he took the virus home to his family, and he added: “And it’s always at the back of your mind, when you look at the news, that some of my colleagues have died because of it, and I may be next, I don’t know.”
But he admitted there was what he called a “paradox” as he said: “I’ve actually never been so proud to be a nurse, and I’m so happy to be able to fight against coronavirus and so there’s this sense of proudness but also the anxieties, it’s a mixed cocktail that sometimes it’s very difficult to express.”
He also said the crisis had presented an opportunity for people to appreciate the work frontline staff do.
Pointing to the Clap for Carers on a Thursday evening, where across the country people have come out on their doorsteps to praise health and social care staff, he said: “It’s a good feeling, feeling appreciated, and I think the coronavirus has showed a bit more what nurses do.
“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to showcase and bring the image of nursing to the 21st century, we have come a long way since Florence Nightingale was born 200 years ago.
“But I also have mixed feelings about it [the clapping]. I would like the recognition more than the clapping, I would like something better with laws, we need minimum safe staffing laws that we don’t have in this country and I think it’s dangerous, and we will deserve a well-earned pay rise.”
He said despite nurses being given a pay rise by Health Secretary Matt Hancock last year, inflation and austerity meant in real terms there had not been much of a change.
He said: “It’s getting more difficult to make ends meet.”
And he added he felt the Government had been too slow to bring about lockdown measures.
“We didn’t initiate the lockdown until the 23rd of March, that was too late, for me at least, three or four weeks too late.”
He added: “When they introduced the right measures I saw it in my unit, we have stabalised, and the number of patients we have in my unit daily is decreasing.”
But he feared the next stage, and said he was wary about schools opening next week.
He said: “You can do your little bit to control this virus, don’t get angry and destroy what we have achieved, let’s carry on, keep social distancing, and keep this under control.”