A year ago today (March 5) the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Wiltshire.
At the time, information was thin on the ground.
No-one knew who they were, where in Wiltshire they lived or whether they were sick.
But a week later, when the first Covid death was reported at Salisbury District Hospital, it became clear the virus was among us.
Doctors, nurses, medical and non-medical staff at the Odstock site have been fighting the pandemic for almost a year ever since.
They have had to learn on the job and quickly react to a fast-changing situation they had never faced before.
Many of them are scarred by that experience but continue to carry out their daily roles knowing, or hoping, that the end is in sight.
‘The hardest I’ve ever worked’
During the first wave, Helen Benfield, 57, was the matron of the Respiratory Care Unit, a role that involved making sure staff had the PPE they needed, understanding and communicating guidance from Public Health England and working out how to look after Covid patients.
“I remember when we opened up our Respiratory Care Unit, we had one or two patients coming through but we quickly realised we needed a support ward area so we could look after them and isolate them,” she said.
“I had just come back from leave and I was asked to focus on the respiratory ward.
“The first three to four weeks were the hardest I have ever worked in 40 years.
“We were getting more patients coming through.
“Covid was new so we had to upskill our nurses and medical team.”
Having seen other hospitals being hit by the first surge of patients, there was an expectation Salisbury wouldn’t be much different.
Nonetheless, staff were scared.
“Nobody knew how it was going to play out, how infectious it was but even though it was a really difficult time we all had to do our best to calm our own anxieties to be able to look after patients who were also scared and vulnerable.”
Dealing with deaths was incredibly hard
The sickest Covid patients, those requiring a ventilator, are treated in the Intensive Care Unit.
But the vast majority remain on the respiratory ward.
While many patients go on to be discharged, 201 to date have sadly passed away at the hospital having tested positive for Covid.
Dealing with such a high number of deaths at a time when visiting was banned was the hardest part, Helen said.
“It’s part of being a doctor, of course, you deal with people dying, we’re all used to doing that but not on the scale that we’ve seen.
“For me, the hardest thing was the lack of visits from family and friends.
“Normally you would try and have their relatives with them if that’s what they wish but we couldn’t do that so we had to make sure that nurses and doctors were sitting with those patients that were dying and that was incredibly hard.
“At that time, all of us felt that somebody should be with them even if it put a strain on staffing.”
Among the many things that will stay with her for years to come is a comment made by a very ill patient interviewed by BBC Newsnight during their visit at the hospital earlier this year.
“He said he thought he was going to die and he had that nurse sat next to him who kind of pulled him through, he said that so eloquently,” Helen recalled.
“You only get one death and we’ve got to make sure that’s the most dignified death somebody can have.”
Pressure on staff
While up to 49 patients were being cared for at the start of the pandemic, when the second wave struck, that number more than trebled.
Around 180 were on site during the peak of the second wave in January.
Now, numbers have come down again but staff are still feeling “on edge”.
“It’s a year on and we hope there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel but everyone is tired,” said Helen.
“The first wave we knew that people weren’t coming to hospital, now they’re all coming back and thank goodness for that, but that adds to the pressure.”
She added: “We’re all a bit on edge, trying to make sure we don’t get another peak so we’re a bit apprehensive about what’s coming next.
“Covid won’t go away, it’s about how we manage it and what the future is going to look like with it.”
A few positives
Although the pandemic has brought unimaginable suffering and hardship, from a medical point of view some good has come out of it.
“Look at the changes in our practice, the clinics we do that we can now do virtually, digital communication and we’ve got a whole upskilled workforce which is brilliant,” said Helen.
However, as the Covid battle winds down, an awful lot of work will go into making sure overworked members of staff get the support they need for their mental and physical wellbeing.
In Helen’s case, she says she was lucky to have the support of her husband, Shaun, who, among other things, would make sure dinner was ready on her return.
“I feel really lucky to have some family around, for lots of us that have no-one to come home to, it’s been harder.”
Her message for members of the public at this stage of the fight is: “Hold your nerves and see it out to the end abiding by the rules.”
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