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Covid: Life on the frontline – Cheryl’s story

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Cheryl Harbourne is Home Manager at Royal Star & Garter, Solihull. Here, she speaks about her decision to ‘lock-in’ the Home for two weeks, the battle to keep out the virus, and her concerns for the future.

 

Keeping residents in this Home safe and well throughout the pandemic has been a fantastic achievement. I’m so proud of everyone here and I’ll never be able to thank staff enough for what they are doing. They have rolled up their sleeves and said ‘How can we help?’ This is priceless. They have covered shifts wherever needed, which meant we have never been short-staffed. We’ve not used outside agency staff since the middle of March, which is incredible.

One of the things I noticed when we stopped visitors coming to the Home is how residents have become a lot closer to staff. The bond between them became so much greater because they had not been seeing anyone else. The residents have been very supportive of what we are doing. They have been happy and content and a lot of them have said they have felt safe, which is good to hear. We’ve explained to them the importance of washing hands and they’ve been doing a great job, so they’ve also helped in our battle to keep residents safe.

 

The staff have been magnificent. I couldn’t have asked anything more of them. They’ve been very compliant with what we’ve asked them to do, such as effective use of PPE (personal protective equipment), engaging in regular testing and not using public transport, and the results speak for themselves. They have been very upbeat, especially when we decided to lock-in and shut the doors for two weeks at the end of March – it was apparent that morale was very high. However, it’s noticeable that everyone is now a bit tired and fed-up, it’s a bit like Groundhog Day!

It’s very self-contained here and that can make life feel a little bit samey, and staff and residents are feeling that. It’s been six months since this started and that’s a long time when you’re in your latter years and trying to make the most of that.

 

In early May we held a drive-by, where relatives were able to safely drive around the private mini roundabout outside the Home and see their loved ones, who were waiting and waving outside. Residents and relatives were very grateful. It was a tiny gesture but it was so well received because it had been a long time since they had set eyes on each other. Relatives have been able to meet residents outside since the beginning of June, with social distancing adhered to and PPE worn. We’ve been in regular touch with relatives throughout, it’s really important that they know what’s happening in the Home. We send them weekly update letters and these have been really well received. Relatives love it, I think they really feel it keeps them part of the Home. They’re all so grateful for the effort that we are making. I think relatives feel that we are leading the way as a charity.

 

I’d discussed the possibility of a lock-in with staff from the initial outbreak of COVID-19. There were certain things that would make me want to lock the doors and live here: If there were very high levels [of the virus] in Solihull; if staff or residents tested positive; or if there was a lot of staff sickness. And it was the staff sickness which triggered it in the end. A lot of staff were self-isolating. We were struggling to cover shifts because we didn’t want agency staff coming in. We found 35 fit and healthy staff and gave everyone else the chance to self-isolate at home for 14 days. It completely resolved the issue of staff not knowing if they had it. Everyone when they returned knew they hadn’t got it and knew they were safe to return. It gave us the kick-start we needed to keep the virus out.

The worst moment without doubt was the positive results for two residents. They came through on VE Day. I’d already told staff they were to spend the day with residents taking part in the celebrations, we were going to have a lovely day. But before that happened I received a call from Public Health England (PHE) that two residents had tested positive. I was devastated beyond belief. Both residents had to be isolated immediately despite feeling fit and well. It was very sad. They were re-tested that day and both came back negative. I suppose we will never know, but as all the staff had tested negative and the two residents had never met, it seemed so strange that they had tested positive. It was such a relief when we got the negatives, and both residents remained well throughout. But we still had to hold our breath for 14 days in case anyone showed symptoms, we were checking residents every five minutes to make sure they were alright. It was truly awful, and heart-breaking that the two residents had to go into isolation.

 

Another difficult time was when residents passed away. We didn’t lose any to COVID-19 but some did pass away, and because we were not allowing new residents, there was a time when we had ten empty beds. I’ve never had that many in my time here. But there were no new admissions during this time, no new characters coming in, no new people to meet and get to know and be friends with. It felt the Home was emptying and that was sad. Staff were also unable to attend funerals. We get close to residents and staff like to say their goodbyes, but weren’t able to do that. It’s always hard when we lose residents, but it was much harder because of COVID-19. It was really hard on the families too. When they came to visit a loved one who was near the end all safety measures were in place which meant they couldn’t touch them or kiss them. That was heart-breaking.

We are welcoming new residents now. We only have two beds to fill and lots of interest. We test pre-admission, on admission and after seven days of isolation. We’re not taking admissions from care homes or hospital at the moment. We’re going slow, we don’t want too many people in isolation at one time.

 

There have been some positives during the pandemic. Residents’ infections are down. Hospital admissions are way down without a doubt. There has also been less staff sickness. I put this down to reduced footfall, handwashing – remember residents are washing their hands too and playing their part – and PPE. It’s made the biggest difference.

 

I wish we could go back to normal, but it is clear that right now we can’t go back to how things used to be with visitors, GPs visits and people just coming and going. The thought of that does terrify me – unless we have a vaccine and feel confident that all staff and residents are protected. The Home is still fun, vibrant and full of life and laughter, but it feels like it’s lost its soul a little. We loved it when entertainers came in, and the singing and dancing, but it’s just not safe to do that now.

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