I wanted to go back to work. I wanted to see my friends and colleagues again, to banter with them, to laugh and joke, to talk about how best to help our patients; to not be a patient myself. I wanted to see them to explain why I was suddenly disappearing, now, in the middle of the biggest health crisis of modern times, leaving them when I was most needed.
I wanted to have that last week of normality, before any likely treatment might start. Where I could still just be me, going about my daily life.
But, cancer or no, normality had already left the building.
My colleagues had worked swiftly and efficiently to create a receiving area for suspected Covid patients. The layout of my department was completely changed. The expectations of staff had changed; the demands of wearing PPE and masks, of staying 2m apart at work, the way handovers happened, where the changing rooms were…in the week I had been self-isolating, there had been a whirlwind of activity to get everything prepared for the oncoming storm.
All that was left to do was to wait.
I remember. On my last shift before my enforced self-isolation we were, most unusually, standing around. The number of patients coming in to our department had dropped. From an absolutely frantic February, it was almost eerie how calm it was.
(NB – we NEVER, ever say the Q-word on pain of absolute carnage breaking out. If you want to know who works in frontline health services just say the phrase ‘isn’t it quiet?’ and look for who visibly recoils, even if you’re just standing in line at your local library with no-one else within 30m…).
This is how it used to be, someone said. It didn’t used to be mad busy all the time.
But this was a different sort of qui… calm. There was a stretchedness, a twanging in the atmosphere, such that you couldn’t really relax.
It feels like we are all stood on the beach, watching the water go far far out, knowing the tsunami is about to hit, I said. God yes, said a passing surgeon. Yes.
There we all were, stood shoulder to shoulder on the beach, waiting. Instead of running the hell away from the tsunami like any sensible human, we stood hoping to catch it, hoping to stop it, hoping it didn’t carry any of us away when it hit.
I can’t speak for the others, but I was scared. Not so much of getting ill myself – you never think it will happen to you (oh, the irony!) – but of people I loved getting ill, especially if they were far away and I was unable to help. I was scared for my older colleagues (worry for my BAME colleagues came later, as the virus showed its hand). And I was scared of getting through the next few months without any real physical contact. Yes, I would see my lovely colleagues at work but…not my friends, not my family, not hugs, no physical contact with another living being (I didn’t count having to touch patients!). I couldn’t visit the hills and parks and woodlands that I loved to explore with friends. I couldn’t even see Bruce, the joy of a dog I borrowed every Monday, going adventuring together, playing with him, watching TV with him at my feet. Bruce was always a wonderful companion who helped me decompress from my day job.
I was also scared of what I would see, of the tales from Italy of running out of oxygen, of having to ration basic, simple medical care, of having to play God. I am no stranger to trauma – work long enough in the NHS and you see plenty – and I know how it can accrue under the surface, little by little, silently spreading, until one day you find yourself sinking and have no idea why or how it happened so fast. I’ve seen it in colleagues. I’ve come close to it myself.
I had done my best to prepare for the above. I had messaged friends asking them to keep checking in, even if I wasn’t great at replying. I had managed to arrange to help care for some goats in a nearby private woodland, meaning I could go and spend time with the goats, look after them, walk in the woods and not have to worry about anyone else being around. I had reassured my family I would be fine and got my parents used to video calling. I had even started doing yoga again.
It was the strangest feeling. I felt like an athlete who had been preparing for the (shittest ever) Olympics, only to be benched at the last second. I was sad to leave my colleagues, knowing that when we met again they would have been through something I could never understand. I was sad to leave them in their time of need.
Life, it seemed, had a different adventure in store for me.
All aboard the Cancer train! Destination unknown, presence mandatory, NHS tea and biscuits plentiful.
It’s going to be a wild ride.