I was holding the man’s hand as he said, please don’t let anything happen to me

Nurses and the incredible job they do, really came to the fore during the pandemic. HELEN MCGURK hears from two local nurses about why they love their jobs

By Helen McGurk
Saturday, 15th May 2021, 1:35 pm
Conor McDowell
Conor McDowell

Conor McDowell admits he cried for the first time in his 11-year career as nurse during the pandemic,

“I recall holding the hand of a 34-year-old man and he said, “I have a four year old son with disabilities, please don’t let anything happen to me.” He squeezed my hand so tight and cried as he went to sleep.

“This was the moment I knew the seriousness of this virus. I will never forget visiting him four weeks later in ICU and he cried again, remembering my name. To this day, I still get chills thinking about this man. This is the exact reason I do this job - there really is no better feeling in this world. I’m glad to say he got home safe thanks to my amazing colleagues in ICU.”

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Karen Hayes

Belfast man Conor is a clinical nurse specialist in infectious diseases at Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and was elected to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Northern Ireland Board earlier this year.

Recalling the start of the pandemic, he said: “In the early days I remember thinking complete panic. As the infectious diseases nurse specialist, my colleagues were asking me many valid questions but as this was a new disease, I didn’t always know the answer.

“This was a huge challenge and gave me many sleepless nights. I remember admitting the first patient in Northern Ireland and I will never forget my anxiety for them.

“While I had fear that I may contract the virus, my priority was always to keep my patients safe.

“I worried about staff getting sick and would we have enough doctors and nurses to care for the volume of patients. I struggled with how well patients looked to the eye but they were actually critically unwell and requiring ventilation in ICU.

“I had to set up an ICU on the infectious diseases ward and this was literally done overnight. That was only possible due to the amazing teamwork of all teams. I will never forget how we as a healthcare family came together and just made it happen. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

“I was worried about my family - my nephews and nieces, parents and grandparents. Despite this worry I just had to keep going because patients and staff needed me. I undertook mass teaching in personal protective equipment to keep our staff safe.”

During his career Conor has worked in areas such as cardio-thoracic surgery, prison, Police Custody, pre-hospital, management and in Africa on medical missions.

“I absolutely love the fact that nursing has such variety and specialism,” he said.

“No two days are ever the same. The world of nursing has changed so much. In my current role I am a nurse specialist. This job involves many aspects people would associate with the typical role of a doctor, for example, making a diagnosis, ordering diagnostic investigations, managing my own patients and prescribing medication. With this comes great responsibility but it truly has given me the opportunity to keep the patient at the centre of all care. I get to know them and their family so well.”

He added: “Nurses have the pleasure of being there at the beginning of life and have the privilege of holding someone’s hand as they leave the world. I cannot express how privileged we are to be in this position. Nursing is ever-changing.

“I leave each day having learnt something new and feeling fulfilled. I honestly believe I have the best job in the world and have the honour of calling myself a nurse. I never underestimate that privilege and would never want to do any other job in the world.”

He added; “We are now at the better end of this pandemic. I have learned that as nurses we will always be there and we were there every minute of every day. We kept people safe, we held their hands and we were their family as they left the world.

“It’s been a difficult year but I believe we are so much stronger as a profession and I am glad the public have seen how awesome my colleagues are. We continue to carry the lamp of life.”

Karen Hayes is a Macmillan Skin Cancer Nurse Specialist working within Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, one of 120 Macmillan nurses providing cancer care to people across Northern Ireland.

Karen’s course into a career in nursing wasn’t straightforward, but she has no regrets.

“I didn’t take the easiest route!”, said Karen.

“I became a nurse a little later in life – I was 34 when I returned to education having had that moment of realisation that I needed a career change. I’d worked in administration roles over the years, but I wanted to do something more me, more fulfilling, so when my first child was just 6 months old I went back to college.”

Karen has been working in dermatology for 10 years, and been a Macmillan nurse for two and a half of those years, helping people to understand their diagnosis and treatment options and supporting them through their cancer experience.

She works with outpatients across the City Hospital and Royal Victoria Hospital sites and is passionate about encouraging people to talk about skin cancer more openly, and increasing awareness of the need for sun protection in all climates.

“I absolutely love my job. Although the last year has been incredibly tough and stressful for nurses everywhere, it has also brought many rewarding, emotional moments. There has been upheaval of some kind for health care professionals everywhere – although I haven’t been redeployed, I usually work out of the Tower at the City Hospital and moved location while it became a Nightingale facility.

“Not seeing patients face-to-face has been one of the biggest changes and as a result, I’ve carried out a lot of telephone reviews.

“There is no doubt that the pandemic has increased people’s sense of isolation and loneliness, so when a patient has a call scheduled with me, they have tended to be more talkative and open. It has also been a little easier for older people, or those who live further away, to access support by phone. Often I hear the words ‘you’ve made my day’ which in turn makes mine.”

She added: “It is an absolute privilege to support people through a difficult period in their lives. Yes, the pandemic has been one of the most difficult times I’ve experienced in nursing, and we will all feel its impact for a long time to come. However, in the 10 years that I have been a nurse, I have seen so much progress in cancer care.

“Every day I wake up knowing that I’m doing something I love, making a difference and working with wonderful people who feel exactly the same. What is more rewarding than that?”

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