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Covid-19: Time to reflect: Surbiton Home Manager Helena confides, ‘There were times when I didn’t think I could cope’

In April and May 2020, seven residents at Royal Star & Garter’s Surbiton Home died. Several of these had contracted Covid-19, and other residents and staff also tested positive. Home Manager, Helena Maher, describes why it was the hardest thing she’s ever had to deal with in her career.

I had the week off at the beginning of March 2020, and I remember dropping off my daughter at Gatwick. It was completely empty and it was the strangest feeling. This was as the numbers were going up in this country and I thought: “This is going to be huge.” I returned to work and it escalated. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were trying to secure PPE, and information for care homes from the Department of Health was so sketchy.


Testing wasn’t available in March and April. If staff had symptoms, they self-isolated. The first confirmed case was a resident who had recent hospital treatment. I was frustrated. We’d kept the virus away from residents. Now I was anxious about how we would prevent it spreading around the Home. Staff were worried, and I understood why they were scared, I was too. They didn’t want to come into work, potentially contract the virus and take it home with them. We had to do a lot of work with the staff to change their thinking, build their confidence and support them.


In April and May the virus was moving through the Home. Once it got into a hallway it started to spread. I’m an experienced nurse, and I really struggled to work out what I could do to prevent it. We ramped up training on PPE and handwashing and we instigated regular deep cleans. Because I didn’t want it spreading from one hallway to the next, we moved residents who weren’t showing symptoms to other rooms. I’m glad I did it because we managed to contain the virus to just one hallway.


During that time, I was finding it really hard personally. Everybody was coming to me for advice, but I’m no Covid specialist! I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying. It felt like months when we couldn’t get on top of it. There were times when I felt I couldn’t cope. I remember saying to my husband: “This is too big for me, I can’t do it, I don’t know what I’m dealing with.” I spent quite a lot of those evenings in floods of tears.


With every death, I thought: “What have I missed? What have I done wrong? What could I have done differently?” I felt really responsible and I was exhausted. I was working on the floor because we had 20-30 staff off during this period, as well as trying to run a Home, and be positive, because everyone looks to you. We were learning each day as well. The speed at which residents deteriorated was significant.


It was awful when the residents were confined to their rooms for nearly 10 weeks. The atmosphere was flat and we were trying everything to raise their spirits. What I need to remember is nine of the residents who tested positive made a full recovery. It’s phenomenal when you think of their ages. They could see what was going on and it must’ve been so frightening for them.

One of the hardest things for me was watching residents die without their loved ones with them. There were always staff by their side, they didn’t die alone, but I just felt for their son or daughter. I’d hate not to be with my mum. Then when we were able to let people come in at the end-of-life, because they were in full PPE, the residents possibly didn’t even know who was sitting with them. That was horrible. We weren’t able to give them their leaving ceremony (where staff and residents clap as the resident leaves the Home for the final time in a coffin) and it felt like they’d been robbed of that final respect.


We haven’t had a resident test positive since last May, but I didn’t feel like we’d turned a corner until the residents had their first vaccine this January. Every time a staff member tested positive I’d worry: “Is it back?” The vaccine is when I started to think, ‘There is light at the end of the tunnel.’


I’m immensely proud of my staff. The whole Home pulled together. Physios were working as care staff, receptionists were working as housekeepers. Everybody was taking on extra roles to keep the Home running. We all mucked in, serving meals and whatever was needed. The team have worked so hard, they’ve all pulled together and been incredible.


We’re in a better place now than we were 12 months ago, with the vaccine and regular testing. Also, our response is a lot quicker, staff know clearly what to do, and PPE isn’t an issue. I’ve had amazing support from everyone within the charity and my family, and my dog has been walked constantly and cried on a bit!


In my career, I’ve worked in ITU, A&E and paediatrics. When I was a student nurse, I remember supporting as the Hillsborough disaster unfolded. Everybody trooped in to the hospital, none of us knew what we were going to face. It was really hard. I’ve many had stressful times but I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed as I was last spring. In a hospital, you walk away and go back to a new day. But with Covid it was going on and on. You were walking away and coming back to the same day. Professionally, it’s absolutely the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with.