Throughout the Pandemic, the heroic image of the front-line nurse has dominated the public imagination. But the battle against Covid is not only waged in hospitals, as this personal account by school nurse, activist and author Emma Gracie shows.
Throughout the pandemic one of the terms we’ve repeatedly heard on the news, social media and in conversation is ‘frontline’. Frontline workers have been the subject of praise, applause and appreciation the world over. Perhaps the group of frontline workers that comes to mind most frequently is nurses. We’ve all seen images of nurses on wards and intensive care units dressed in extreme PPE, utterly exhausted from the work that has been expected of them. But not all nurses work on wards or intensive care units. Many work in clinics, schools and a vast number of health care settings in the community. I am one of those nurses and while our work hasn’t been as widely publicised, we’ve been working hard too.
At the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, I was told that I had to shield because of a rare lung disease I’d been diagnosed with eight years previously. I’m treated with immunosuppressants which increase my risk even further and in the early stages of Covid, when there was so much uncertainty around the virus, I didn’t feel I could take any chances. This caused a real conflict for me as I saw the thousands of nurses giving their all at work while I was safely tucked up at home. I knew I had to take care of myself in order to be able to add more years of service to the 20 I have already given, but I also wanted to do something worthwhile from home. Initially I wrote and published a nursing memoir which led to me being involved in campaigns for nursing pay and conditions. I felt that if I couldn’t go to work, I could at least fight for my colleagues who were. I spoke at a rally, on podcasts, on local radio to local newspapers and contacted my local MP as well as Boris Johnson on two occasions.
The feedback and support for these efforts has been overwhelming and I have been blown away by the kindness of many. However, I received some truly virulent comments from a scattering of people regarding one newspaper article I was featured in. One person was furious that I didn’t ‘even work in lockdown’ and another said that because I had ‘chosen a pauper’s job’ I should ‘remember my place’. At the time, while I was surprised by these views, I laughed them off as ignorant comments made by keyboard warriors who would have no such confidence in real life. And yet I still couldn’t help the feelings of guilt that rose to the surface. Now I wonder if they set in motion a train of thought that I should have been working in a more clinical setting than I was. I often hear the opinion that ‘real nursing’ can only truly take place in a hospital but have always disregarded this viewpoint. Perhaps lockdown, as it did for many people, affected my way of thinking more than I realised at the time.
During my shielding period I was employed as a school nurse in a secondary school. While working from home, I completed a rudimentary counselling course online as I thought skills in this field would improve my ability to care for the students and prove useful on my return to work whenever that would be.
It became quickly apparent that the lockdown and homeschool situation was having a very negative effect on some students. It was decided that I would provide video welfare calls to students who were really struggling and before long I was inundated by students who weren’t coping with studying at home all day. Many of the children I worked with came from difficult backgrounds with limited support, money or equipment at home and this strange time was very unsettling for them. Before long the safeguarding team had an extensive waiting list of students who had asked for video calls to help with their mental wellbeing. My hours were increased to deal with this and together we provided a much-needed service for these kids. I am also a trained yoga teacher, so I used this experience to help the students learn about breathing, mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Many reported that this really helped with their anxiety and sleep, which was wonderful to hear. Once it was deemed safe for me to return to work, I continued to split my days between my school nurse role and a school counselor role as the demand remained high.
During this time, I was also working as a locum practice nurse and once my shielding ended, I was called to run clinics to help meet the demand for Covid vaccinations. It felt great to be able to play my part after months of working from home. I worked across several GP practices on days when I wasn’t school nursing and at weekends helping to deliver flu and Covid vaccination clinics, sometimes seeing over 160 patients a session.
I was also working as a volunteer at a local church to help run a weekly group for elderly people who just needed others to socialise with. We all know how difficult those stay-at-home months were and for some who live alone, it was a dark time indeed. The group was simply a place for them to enjoy a cup of tea and snacks with friends in a Covid-safe environment. My nursing career began with caring for the elderly, and I have always had great respect and affection for this generation. The perseverance and fortitude that has carried them this far astounds me. I love listening to their stories and comparisons to their war experiences and while they have survived far worse, it was still vital for them to express their anxieties around the pandemic and support each other through such an unusual year.
Last summer I made the difficult choice to leave school nursing and fully return to practice nursing. It’s still a decision I sometimes question but at the time I felt I needed to move back to a more clinical setting. I’d been struggling with the guilt of not working on the ‘frontline’ and wanted to at least deliver Covid vaccination clinics even if my work wasn’t in a hospital. In the autumn I also became a breast cancer awareness nurse educating and advising women about breast cancer and how to check for any signs of it. I’m really enjoying this role and hope it’s something I can settle in for a long time to come. However, on reflection, I can’t help wondering if I should have ignored the view that ‘real’ nurses only work in clinical settings and stayed to help the students I deeply cared for navigate their way through a time of drastic upheaval in their young lives.
Emma Gracie is a school nurse, activist and author from Southend-on-Sea. Her book Blue Girl, Nursing Beyond the Ward was published in 2020.