‘I was lucky, I didn’t see anybody die’: NHS nurse recalls agony of Covid frontline

After suffering from Covid-19 herself, Jessica was told to report to ICU where she worked until summer

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A NHS nurse has recalled the moment she was left crying into her PPE after a patient struggling to breathe told her he didn't want to die as the first coronavirus wave hit the nation.

Jessica Filoteo was a cath lab nurse but 2020 was marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and her life changed after she was drafted up to the ICU wards at St Bartholomew's in London.

The 35-year-old battled coronavirus herself at the beginning of the pandemic in March but soon recovered to treat extremely sick patients in intensive care.

“There were talks about being moved already in mid-March, and I got drafted mid-April. It was really scary,” she told the Mirror Online.

“I got sick the last week of March, from Covid-19. I was isolating then the day before I was to come back to work I was told I was to report to the ICU.

“I’ve worked as a cath nurse for over 10 years now, but I was worried would I be up for this, having so many sick patients around you all the time?”

The 35-year-old works in a cardiac catheterization lab, and has done so for over ten years, six years ago moving to the UK and working for the NHS.

Her fears of working in ICU were not misplaced.

The first wave nearly overwhelmed many hospitals across the UK and stretched the nation’s health care system to breaking point.

Jessica Filoteo, an NHS cath nurse at St Bartholomew's who was drafted up into ICU in the first wave
(Image: Jessica Filoteo)

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“The earliest parts of it were scary, because as I said I hadn’t worked anywhere outside of cath lab for so long.

“But when I got settled in, that was when the enormity of the situation hit me,” she said.

The long, and constant shifts took their toll on her, and she struggled being surrounded by so many sick patients all the time – and many didn't recover.

She added, “Nurses, as a job, is one that takes so much from you, you’re dealing with patients on a very personal level, and then with Covid there were so many sick patients and you were surrounded by staff dealing with the trauma themselves.”

“I was lucky, I never saw somebody die in front of me. But some of my colleagues did, a lot.

“They saw patients die in front of them, had to speak to the relatives, who were getting emotional but there was nothing we could do to comfort them.

“You couldn’t hug them or anything. How do you comfort this person when you can’t hug them, or when they haven’t seen their relatives in months?”

“As nurses we can’t get affected by what we see, but it was so hard because we were working so closely with each other and the patients that you can’t help but be attached to these people.” She said.

She recalled one patient, a gentleman, who was already on oxygen, and had an underlying lung condition before being admitted.

Nurses hold a meeting on one of five Covid-19 wards at Whiston Hospital in Merseyside where patients are taken to recover from the virus

“I remember during my shift, a doctor came to update him on his condition.

“The doctor gave him a heads up that he wasn’t doing very well, and if his condition did not improve there was a chance he might have to be incubated.

“But if it gets to that point, because of his lung condition there’s a big chance he may never wake up again. He wouldn’t be able to recover from that. That was very difficult.”

The man in his 60s was so breathless he could barely speak, but managed to tell Jessica and the doctor ‘I don’t want to die yet’.

“Watching them have this conversation I was holding back my tears, because after this doctor leaves I would be the one comforting him.

“I didn’t know what to say. I just held his hand and said ‘I’m sorry’. I got him a pen and paper and he wrote that his daughter doesn’t know where his valuables are.

“After this I went to the toilet and cried under my PPE.

“That ward used to be a normal ward, but when the first wave came they had to close off the entire 6th floor.

Surges of the new strain are being seen in some hospitals already
(Image: Andrew Teebay/Liverpool Echo)

“Now, it’s almost back to normal but every time I go back to that room it’s like it happened yesterday,” she said.

But there were more hopeful moments across Jessica’s months in the ICU.

“The first time I heard people clapping I was at home, I just heard my neighbours outside. I got really emotional. I watched it from my window. I got emotional, it was a feeling of solidarity and appreciation. It was people saying: we see you, we appreciate you.”

Another of her most memorable patients, who did recover, was also one of her last.

She looked after a middle-aged father on her final shift who could only communicate through gestures because they had had a tracheostomy.

Only a few days earlier she had learned that she was going to return to her normal lab.

A picture of the doctor comforting a crying elderly Covid patient on Thanksgiving in Texas, America
(Image: Getty Images)

The patient had been close to dying at one point, but managed to pull through, and the second time Jessica was looking after him he was recovering.

She said: “In the last hour of my shift, at 7am, this patient made a gesture asking for his phone.

“So I got his phone for him and had to help use it. It was quite personal for him to allow me to read his messages and help him reply to them, because I was typing for him.

“After he responded to some messages, he opened his photo gallery and I thought he wanted to reminisce.

“But he stopped, he wanted me to have a look.

“He showed me his family, his children, his wife, and I was asking questions about it, about photos of his wedding.

“Afterwards, he asked me to open his LinkedIn account and I realised he was showing me who he was before Covid. I was very touched and privileged and humbled by this.

“This was a very nice reminder for me as well. At this point I was very exhausted, I was angry, bitter, but then having this experience on my last shift in ICU was a really nice reminder of the importance of what we were doing.

“I remember going home and thinking it’s things like this that make the sacrifice worth it.”

Since the summer, Jessica has returned to her lab at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

But she knows this country’s struggle against Covid-19 is far from over.

The new year has seen many hospitals stretched to breaking points, with the families of NHS workers fearing for their lives.

As hospitals in some areas of the country have become overwhelmed they are considering sending patients across the country.

In December, Jessica said: “This week, there was a meeting in the department. That beds were filling up again and there were talks of another redeployment. I wouldn’t want to go back for this wave.”

“At the moment, we’re just waiting to see what happens.”

Since then, a number of nurses from the same department as Jessica have been called back up to ICU.

She has not yet, but if the situation continues to worsen, with 1,161 people dying with coronavirus in the UK on Thursday 7th January, more may be needed.

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