Damian Walicki is a Lead Nurse at Royal Star & Garter’s Surbiton Home. Here he talks about the toll COVID-19 took on him mentally and physically, the heartbreak of losing residents to the virus, and his pride in the staff who gave their all for the residents.
This has been one of the toughest challenges of my career, because we are kind of fighting with ghosts. You couldn’t see the virus, but you knew that it was there.
At the beginning, when I first heard of COVID-19, it was far away in China. It didn’t seem that this might come here, to us. But I remember hearing about the first case in the UK, and then Kingston, and I thought ‘OK, this is nearby, it’s getting real.’
We put a lot of safety measures in place and we were well prepared. So when we had the first confirmed case in the Home, we felt we had failed somehow. We knew very little about the virus when this all started. Each week new research was published – what it is, how to fight it, what safety measures should be put in place. It seemed like the Department of Health was changing its guidelines every two days.
If you had any time off, when you came back you had to work with different guidance. As well as the change in working style, there was huge pressure on hygiene and infection control. This included PPE (personal protective equipment) we went from having a family-centred care home to suddenly becoming like a full-time hospital environment, where every resident was isolated in their rooms. We were changing our equipment every time we stepped in and out of the residents’ rooms.
It was very challenging, no-one in this setting was used to working in this way.
It’s hard to express how difficult it was when we lost residents. We thought that maybe they would live longer if it weren’t this situation. Our focus was on making them as comfortable as possible and keeping them company at the end. Throughout my career I’ve worked in acute care settings – in intensive care units and operating theatres – and quite often some patients passed away. However, I was never affected as much as I was here, so it was really difficult. We joke with the residents every day, and we’re left feeling like a family member has just passed away.
It was almost impossible for me to switch off and let my emotions out. The staff were affected by the virus too. As a Lead Nurse I was trying to support my team even when I was at home. So I was constantly in touch with everyone to make sure they stayed safe. I felt I was at work all the time. I was going home going to sleep and in my dreams I was still here, checking if the residents were fine.
I was never concerned about my own well-being, I was only concerned about the residents and keeping them safe. I never prioritised myself over my residents and colleagues. But in the end, I too was affected and tested positive. I had no symptoms, but I had to stay at home. And this was the first time I had a few days’ rest. I felt I was letting down the team being at home. I felt I’d failed at some point.
It felt good when I was able to return to work. And thankfully, all my family have been tested and are fine.
There have been so many tough times over the last few months, and one of them was when there was limited testing. There was no way of knowing if someone was affected and not showing symptoms, and there was no way of knowing if someone who had a cold actually had COVID-19. So there were a lot of staff off, and this feeling of the unknown put a lot of pressure on everyone.
I feel I have to pay tribute to the residents, they have been amazing. I was in isolation and it was tough, so I can’t even imagine how hard it was for them to spend so much time in their rooms. It’s just unbelievable the strength that they have.
Throughout this time, we looked at ways to cheer up our residents. We tried to keep them company whenever we could, whenever we found we had a few minutes we would just sit down and have a chat. It broke up their day and boosted morale among the staff too. Other times we would put on music like Queen and sing along to cheer up the residents. Such small things helped them forget about the whole situation for a little while.
I have to pay tribute to all the staff here too. I have never in my life seen people working together so hard as we have during this time. And we’ve been really well supported too. Royal Star & Garter put in safety measures before other care homes. We got the PPE which other care homes could only dream about at the time. Staff who usually get public transport to work were brought in or taken home by taxi or on our minibus, to reduce the risk of catching the virus. When I walked home I’d see staff from other care homes getting on the bus after they’d finished work and would think how lucky we were. It’s great to have support like that.