When Viv Bates was asked to lead on opening an end of life ward at Royal Bolton Hospital, one dedicated to COVID-19 patients who were being stepped down from intensive care, it was a role she was more than ready to take on.
Viv had spent 32 years in nursing, managing the Gastroenterology ward, with experience in acute medicine, and also in the high dependency unit and as the Trust’s Palliative and End of Life Care Clinical Educator she was perfectly placed to make the key decisions on opening the new ward in response to the pandemic.
But things are not always as simple as they could be, and just as the ward had opened, her husband David, a site-coordinator at the Trust, fell ill with COVID-19, and Viv was left with the difficult decision of whether to isolate with her family, or move away to a local hotel so she could continue her work at the newly founded ward.
“I could have decided to go and isolate for two weeks but I made the choice, he is a nurse so he does understand,” Viv says as she looks back on the choice she made to put the Bolton community over her husband’s health and happiness.
“Despite David being very poorly and the GP ringing him every four hours, because he was that sick, I couldn’t go back home, because I was needed to manage the ward.
Viv had brought together a dedicated team of nurses from across all disciplines of the Trust to manage the new ward, some with little or no clinical experience of caring for acutely ill and dying patients, some had worked in Sexual Health Outpatients, others in the Breast Unit. It was to that hospital family that Viv felt she had to give her commitment to.
“I had been asked to manage the ward,” Viv says. “I couldn’t have left those nurses, who had very limited experience. I even once went in in the middle of the night because there was nobody who was able to verify a death, so I went out in the night, but you do it because I would never have left those girls on their own.
“They all did their absolute best to relearn skills, that they have not used for many years and they were absolutely brilliant. They were scared, really really scared, especially staff that were coming from outpatient areas who have not actually physically cared for a person for years.
“You’re suddenly thrown into nursing where you are doing the most intimate care. The pressures of it, especially where you having to use the iPads, to enable relatives see their dying family member, was awful.
“That will be the one thing that I will never ever forget, saying goodbye to your husband, your wife, your dad or your mum over an iPad.”
As Viv became accustomed to life in the De Vere Whites Hotel, she did have her own family to think of back home, especially her nine-year-old daughter, Poppy, who had been isolating away with her elder sister, Olivia. It was a time fraught with emotion.
“I had to go and stand on the opposite side of the street, it was over Easter, I bought the Easter Eggs, put them at the front door, walked to the other side of the road and cried,” Viv says as she looks back to the very limited contact with her family.
“We live next door to my mum and dad and we have kept them isolated, my dad usually takes my nine-year-old to school every day. Even though there had been no interaction, other than me doing the shopping for them. It was over Easter, so it was a hard time.
“It was lovely being able to go over to De Vere Whites, but you are going to work at 7 o’clock in the morning and I was coming home at half-nine at night. At that time, none of the supermarkets were open at those times, it wasn’t easy to get a proper meal, so I lived off Pot Noodles.”
After just two weeks, the new ward at Royal Bolton Hospital was closed down as, mercifully, the number of patients coming down from the intensive care unit was not as high as expected, however, Viv’s COVID-19 journey of discovery did not end there.
After closing the ward, she moved to a role in the community which would see her visit every nursing home, residential home and learning disability facility to ensure the staff were educated on how to use pulse oximeters, thermometers and blood pressure machines, to help spot any early signs of the disease. Viv has also been responsible for the fit-mask FFP3 testing across the community health care provision, and at the Bolton Hospice, and she admits that she doesn’t expect to get ‘day job’ back anytime soon.
She says: “It hasn’t slowed down yet. I still have to do the training for the end of life care, but I am still dealing with the fallout of COVID-19. I am working on a ward and I have no COVID-19 patients, I’m still preparing people for the future and if there is a second wave.
“It is only when I go back to doing my day job, we’ll never forget COVID-19, but when it is less a part of your daily job that’s when I’ll think ‘Oh my god’.
“The biggest thing for me has been how people, how doctors, how nurses, how allied health professionals at the shortest of notice can do absolutely massive things, and how dedicated people really are.
“Everybody has come into work to do their job, but those who are absolutely dedicated have saved Bolton by wanting to do it, by wanting to do the job that they are trained to do.”