Becky O’Dwyer, Lead Nurse & Joint Clinical Lead for Critical Care Services, SWB NHS Trust
Remembering the experience of working through the pandemic on the Intensive Care Unit
Critical care nurse Becky O’Dwyer hadn’t planned on becoming a nurse – despite coming from a family of healthcare workers. Even though her grandmother had tried to encourage her to join the NHS telling her ‘she’d make a beautiful nurse’ Becky was adamant she wouldn’t join the profession.
“I didn’t want to actually be a nurse,” Becky admits. “But when my nan became seriously ill, I decided to go for an interview. I did it to keep her happy – and it did. She cried and was just delighted when I told her.” Since that day, Becky has never looked back.
She has spent her career working within intensive care, first in North Staffordshire and then to Sandwell and City Hospitals, part of SWB NHS Trust, where she remains today. Making her mark at the organisation, she set up one of the first critical care outreach teams and as a result was invited to Sweden to lecture on the service. Becky soon became lead nurse at the Trust and was promoted joint clinical lead. And then in 2020, the pandemic struck.
"It was really, really bad. We saw six people die in one day, while whole families in the critical care units watched each other die."
The Trust was one of the top five most affected by COVID-19. Becky explains: “We work with a very deprived population. We knew it was always going to be bad, but it was really, really bad. We saw six people die in one day, while whole families in the critical care units watched each other die. There were people in their 20s and 30s losing their lives. It was heart-breaking and an extremely tough time.
"Lots of people ... would ask for the vaccine like it was an antidote when they were on the unit seriously ill."
“Lots of people were really scared,” says Becky. “They would ask for the vaccine like it was an antidote when they were on the unit seriously ill. They kept on asking us, ‘why am I here? What am I doing here?’ Being the service lead in the midst of the pandemic was really difficult. I needed to stay composed so that the staff didn’t see how frightened everyone was.”
She describes the second wave: “In some ways it was worse because so many people didn’t follow the lockdown rules. We kept patients on CPAP machines which aided their breathing for longer while they were awake, rather than putting them into an induced coma on a ventilator.”
"We organised special communication devices, like iPads, which were called Lifelines"
Becky reveals how staff began bonding with patients who stayed in their care for a longer period of time. “Visiting wasn’t allowed on site,” she adds, “so we organised special communication devices, like iPads, which were called Lifelines, so that patients could do video calles with their loved ones.
“A lot of people said goodbye to their loved ones through Lifelines as they came to the end of their life. We heard family members telling them how they loved them or singing Happy Birthday because they knew they would never be able to do this again,” remembers Becky.
The Trust has been very supportive of the staff’s mental health and wellbeing. For some healthcare professionals working across all specialities, the pandemic has led to severe PTSD. Becky tells us: “They now have onsite mental health support to help staff cope. You can also have massage or manicures and take part in meditation sessions."
"The milder variant does give us hope that we will find a way to live with this virus"
The Omicron strain of the virus has thankfully proved less severe than Delta: “The milder variant does give us hope that we will find a way to live with this virus so that it doesn’t continue to ruin lives. I just hope that another, more dangerous strain doesn’t develop in the future,” says Becky.
Looking back on her career so far, she adds: “We continue to face challenges every day within the NHS but for me and my colleagues caring for our patients will always be at the forefront of everything we do. I know my nan would be so proud of me and the way I have dedicated my life to nursing. I certainly don’t regret following her advice.”
Genevieve Shaw, Editor