“Yesterday, I received an email from a clinical lead asking for volunteers for a new ward that will treat Covid-19 patients who can’t self-isolate. I emailed back straight away and put myself forward,” says Musthag Kahin.
As soon as the end of April, Kahin could be working on that ward full-time – despite the fact that she is not a fully qualified nurse.
She is one of thousands of nursing apprentices who have had their courses paused so they can be released to the NHS front line to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
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Kahin would normally work 30 hours at a hospital placement, and then spend seven and half hours a week at London South Bank University, her training provider. For the next four months at least, her university time has been paused, her apprenticeship training is halted, and she is working full-time at the hospital. It’s a big change for her and her peers: and it’s a direct result of the global pandemic that has taken thousands of lives, including those of many health staff.
Joining the fight against coronavirus
“At the beginning, it was terrifying. We didn’t know what was going on, we didn’t know if it was airborne. We were not routinely testing anyone, not even us as the staff. We weren’t wearing masks all the time, only when we were dealing with patients,” Kahin says.
“But as time has gone on, guidance has changed and we have been provided with full PPE. I’ve become more confident in dealing with coronavirus and looking after people affected by it.”
Speaking to Tes from the acute mental health ward that she had been working on as part of her apprenticeship, she says life on the ward has changed significantly in the past few months.
“We don’t normally wear uniforms, but now, as we come into close contact with everyone, we are wearing the proper equipment. We had new rooms allocated for PPE and equipment, and we are using plastic utensils which can be thrown away. Anything that has to be reused – for example, the blood pressure cuffs – has to be clearly labelled if it has been used on a patient with suspected Covid-19 or Covid-19,” she says.
A lack of PPE, Kahin says, hasn’t been an issue on her ward. Staff there have always had the equipment they needed. She feels safe and confident that she will be fully protected if she transfers to the Covid-19 ward in a few weeks' time. There, she would be dealing with mental health patients who are unable to self-isolate at home because they are too vulnerable to be left alone, need medication injected in their blood streams and regular check-ups.
Like the patients she sees every day on the acute ward, they will be dealing with a range of mental health illnesses: from severe depression and schizophrenia to bipolar disorder and self-neglect. These conditions, Kahin says, make them more vulnerable than most. And she’s witnessed first-hand the effect that self-isolation, even within a hospital, can have.
Isolation and mental health
“Many have had to self-isolate and stay in their rooms, which is really tough for people with mental illness, especially when there’s not much to distract them like a TV. We check in on them, bring them newspapers and encourage them to make use of the free wi-fi but it’s really hard.”
It’s hard on her, too – but, despite everything, Kahin says she’s really grateful to be going into work. Her parents, like many who have children working in the NHS, are concerned.
“They tell me I shouldn’t be working, but I say, 'I have to work – I haven’t got a choice.' We are in unprecedented times and looking after patients and caring for them takes priority,” she says.
Kahin’s father is 75 and her mother 65. Her father lost three of his friends to the virus last week. Kahin is doing everything in her power to minimise risk and keep them both safe.
‘“I work quite long days, and travel 50 miles a day to get to the hospital, so by the time I am home by 10pm they are normally in bed. I put my scrubs in an air-tight bag, and then another bag, and wash them as soon as I get home,” she says.
“When my dad is in the living room or kitchen, no one else goes in. He has his own bathroom too. I am in contact with them constantly, that hasn’t changed, I just can't be physically close to them. I see a lot of people who are losing their relatives, so I’m doing all I can to make sure they stay at home and they stay safe.”
'Staying at home is for the greater good'
Kahin stresses the importance of everyone staying at home, and says that still the message needs to be clearer.
“I know people might criticise the people who were on Westminster Bridge last night [standing close to each other in a large group] but from the beginning, people haven't been taking it seriously. Even our prime minister, he shook people’s hands and said we needed to take it on the chin. It didn't seem serious.
“It is hard for people, especially when there’s so much conspiracy going around. It’s stuff that makes you think, really? But others are more susceptible to it. There’s other problems, too, with messaging. You know for some people English is not their first language, so the sources of information could be different,” she says.
“I never thought it would get to the scale it has. The numbers of people dying every day – we are all at risk. But it’s not until it happens to someone close to you or a family member that it hits you differently.
"Please stay at home. It is difficult, but it is for the greater good.”