After 23 years in critical care, nothing prepared ANTHEA ALLEN for war zone at her London hospital

Senior sister Anthea Allen has been a nurse for well over 20 years and thought she had ‘seen it all’ in her long NHS career. Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

When it hit, she was — still is — among those in charge of the critical care unit at St George’s Hospital in South London, one of Britain’s biggest clinical teaching establishments. Now it is in the eye of the Covid-19 storm.

Even in the days before lockdown, some shops within hospitals were refusing to serve nurses in scrubs because of fear of infection. Critical care staff found themselves unable to buy biscuits or a chocolate bar to see themselves through 12-hour days.

So Sister Anthea, a mum of two, appealed to family friends. She was soon inundated with food donations. A Twitter funding page called @CriticalNhs was launched, which has raised nearly £100,000 so far.

She also began a weekly internet diary — to share with a few dozen associates. Now she has agreed to parts of her diary being published exclusively in the Mail, a gripping and deeply moving account of NHS life on the front line.

Senior sister Anthea Allen (pictured in her PPE) has been a nurse for well over 20 years and thought she had ‘seen it all’ in her long NHS career. Then came the coronavirus pandemic

WEEKS 1 & 2: THE GATHERING STORM

MARCH 19 TO APRIL 6

I’m so proud of my colleagues. Before this happened, nurses were stretched to the limit; now they are under truly immense pressure, exposing themselves daily to the threat of Covid-19.

There’s not enough room and not enough people to deal with this gathering storm, so we’re opening up other areas to care for the critically ill, and employing agency staff.

I’ve seen tears, fear and exhaustion among colleagues working long hours, skipping breaks and going the extra mile to ensure patients feel safe — all the while wearing this strange, cumbersome protective gear.

Still, there are shafts of sunlight in the gloom. On Friday, a friend dropped off a huge box of doughnuts for the nurses on my unit — within an hour they had gone!

One night, when I returned home exhausted, there was a tin of homemade chocolate brownies sitting on the doorstep with a card saying ‘Thank you, nurses’. I’ve no idea who made them, but thank you, too. A local school has emailed, offering to arrange deliveries of sandwiches.

The kindness of strangers, the spirit of the community and my very dear friends have warmed my heart. I did not expect this response — bin bags packed with biscuits, chocolate, cake, and cereal bars. We’ve had pizza, curry, homemade bread, cheese and huge baskets of fresh fruit.

The staff on critical care are being kept afloat by this support and we are sharing what has been donated.

Everyone here is performing beyond the call of duty; doctors, nurses, reception staff, ward clerks, porters, cleaners, security, nurse educators, technicians, lab workers, blood bank staff, pharmacists, dietitians and many others, including the fabulous volunteers.

One nurse said: ‘We are like the band in the film — we keep on playing while the ship goes down.’ But this ship will not sink and we will keep on keeping on.

When coronavirus hit, Sister Anthea (far right) was — still is — among those in charge of the critical care unit at St George's Hospital in South London, one of Britain's biggest clinical teaching establishments. Now it is in the eye of the Covid-19 storm

When coronavirus hit, Sister Anthea (far right) was — still is — among those in charge of the critical care unit at St George’s Hospital in South London, one of Britain’s biggest clinical teaching establishments. Now it is in the eye of the Covid-19 storm

WEEK 3: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

APRIL 7-11

It’s like being in a sci-fi movie; staff gowned up with visors, masks and head covers. From three critical care units with a total of 30 beds, we now have 147 beds in seven areas.

Highly trained nurses who usually care for one intensive-care patient now have three to four, with helpers who are ward nurses. Many have never set foot on an intensive care unit (ICU).

It’s tough. It’s claustrophobic in the personal protective equipment (PPE). We’re always thirsty; enclosed in the same room for 12 hours, the only escape is to eat or visit the loo.

It’s raw and real, and we also have our non-Covid critical care patients. Accidents, illness, cardiac arrests, stabbings still happen.

Part of my job is nurse recruitment and the younger ones call me ‘Mama Anthea’.

I’ve become a temporary parent to some, mopping up tears and cuddling those who miss their families. I’m also proud to have recruited my daughter Claudia as our new ward clerk until she can return to university in Bristol.

It’s tough for us but tougher for the patients with no visitors and scared of this vicious virus.

WEEK 4: ‘WHEN THIS IS DONE, SO AM I’

APRIL 12-20

Attention to detail on the ICU is high on our list. I have friends who carefully label every jar in their larder because we are so conditioned to labelling drugs and equipment to ensure we are alert to expiry dates, to what a specific drug is and its dose.

We keep a diary for patients so when they recover they can know their journey. If they don’t survive, we know these diaries are a comfort to family.

We brush patients’ teeth, we change their position, we talk to them even if they are unconscious. We explain to family, we wash hair. We smuggle in a dog to visit, we put a favourite teddy in the bed.

We respect religion, race, sexuality. I have repositioned a bed to face Mecca and dropped off a Valentine’s card for an elderly patient’s wife.

Sister Anthea (pictured with her daughter Claudia) began a weekly internet diary — to share with a few dozen associates. Now she has agreed to parts of her diary being published exclusively in the Mail, a gripping and deeply moving account of NHS life on the front line

Sister Anthea (pictured with her daughter Claudia) began a weekly internet diary — to share with a few dozen associates. Now she has agreed to parts of her diary being published exclusively in the Mail, a gripping and deeply moving account of NHS life on the front line

We are a competent, highly-knowledgeable, kind, caring group of individuals who are proud to be critical care nurses.

It’s different now, though. We are in a growing storm. We just fire-fight to do whatever we can to keep someone alive, to try to help them beat this unrelenting, deadly virus. The personal touch is impossible. One nurse said to me: ‘I don’t even know my patients’ names.’

We all have trouble sleeping and many of our permanent nurses (who come from all over the world) want to go home. They probably will do after this is done. We are broken.

But there is hilarity amid the madness. We laugh and cry and support each other. We have offers of counselling but are too busy.

Our priority outside the ward is to eat, sleep and have a very long shower.

We feel wretched and exhausted while at work, and guilty when not at work.

I walked through one of the ICUs a few days ago and blew kisses at the nurses I recognised beneath swathes of fabric, plastic and paper. Today, I received a text message from one of the Italian nurses: ‘Please come by and send me flying kisses again.’

The level of anxiety increases each day. It’s particularly tough for the junior staff, suddenly expected to lead and guide staff deployed from other areas.

We continue on and on and on, and still more patients arrive, ill and scared.

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