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From finding ‘case zero’ to dealing with six deaths a day, NHS Tayside nurses reflect on working through Covid

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Nurses across Tayside and Fife faced many challenges during the pandemic.

As we celebrate International Nurses Day, they tell us of the highs and lows, and how they’re looking to the future.

Despite many changes to their roles, lives and work over the last two years, Tayside’s Audrey Miller and Greg Shepherd say they are proud to have played their part.

Mum-of-two Audrey is a senior specialist nurse in Test & Protect – quite a change from her role until 2020 as a midwife in Perth.

“When Covid happened I was probably one of the few people in the world who was quite excited by it,” says Audrey, who qualified as a nurse in 1987.

Audrey Miler was a midwife before she moved to Test & Protect during the pandemic.
Audrey Miler was a midwife before she moved to Test & Protect during the pandemic.

“I thought it was fascinating as none of us had ever lived through a pandemic,” Audrey continues.

“We didn’t expect it to go on for two years.

“As a senior charge midwife at the time I had to ensure my staff were safe, bringing in infection, prevention and control measures.

“We were operating across three sites in Tayside, two midwife units in Perth and Angus became hubs. And a lot of our staff went to work in Ninewells.

“Then I applied for this role, as I’d kept my nursing registration.”

‘The numbers went crazy’

Audrey started in Test & Protect in December 2020, just as the Alpha variant arrived.

“We contact-traced everybody in Tayside who had Covid initially,” she explains.

“Interviewing them so we could identify contacts to try to stop the spread of Covid.

The army was called in to help test workers at the 2 Sisters factory in Coupar Angus, March 2021.

“We did that for the first six months but then, when Delta came, the numbers went absolutely crazy.

“As the clinical lead I was reviewing cases and isolating people, even an entire department of workers (not a hospital setting) at one point because they had Covid.”

Local outbreaks

Audrey continues: “Holding problem assessment and incident management meetings helped us discover where outbreaks started, triangulating the numbers etc.

“We contact traced everyone, whether they were in a health setting or elsewhere. And of course there were lots of outbreaks locally in factories.

Audrey worked remotely as well as at Dundee’s Kings Cross or Perth Royal Infirmary for Test & Protect.

“The most challenging moment was when we couldn’t deal with the number of cases.

“We wanted to do the best we could but January 2021 was tough.

“It could be harrowing phoning people, sometimes relatives of those who had died.

“And of course there were others who were rude or anti-Covid [coronavirus deniers].

“But many people thanked us.

“People didn’t realise how serious it was and we were dealing with numbers at one point that we thought we’d never see.

Finding case zero

“In one situation I remember finding case zero in a production business.

“It helped us understand where it started so we knew if it was an in-house spread or coming from community.”

Audrey says the role is a career highlight as the common purpose and speed of change united the team.

“It’s such a great team. Focussing on the specific task made us so cohesive. I’ve never had that level of support from colleagues in all my years in the NHS.”

Initially the department had over 100 staff, now there are around 30 as staff return to departments that were closed during Covid, Audrey says.

“Until last month I worked at 110% for the whole pandemic. It was fascinating, a huge learning curve and such a fantastic opportunity. It opened my eyes to the many possibilities for learning in nursing.”

First patient in Tayside

Dundee nurse Greg Shepherd was working in the Covid High Dependency Unit and ICU in Ninewells when Covid was at its peak.

Dundee nurse Greg Shepherd
Greg Shepherd.

Greg, 30, admits: “I don’t think any of us could have predicted how it was going to go.

“I was on the nightshift in Ninewells when the first Covid patient in Tayside was brought in. And I remember the feeling from that night.

Worrying time

“We didn’t know what was going to happen from that day on. And within two weeks, we were having to change the service around and work in a very different way.

“It was a worrying time for everyone. But I think we did a really good job, especially when the guidance was changing so often.”

But one day stands out above all others for Greg.

Ninewells Hospital, Dundee
Greg worked in the High Dependency Unit at Ninewells Hospital during the pandemic.

“We had six deaths in a day – that was the hardest day. It was horrible. I don’t think I will ever forget that.”

The resilience and support of colleagues was “amazing” Greg adds.

‘We had to do it all again tomorrow’

“They picked us up. But we didn’t have an option really. Because we knew we had to do it again tomorrow.

“We did the best we could but hopefully we won’t see that again.

Greg saw the highs and lows of the pandemic.

“Working through Covid was a challenge, but I’m proud of what our service did.

“Seeing people get better and providing a good level of care, that’s the best thing.

“When people weren’t able to have relatives in, we filled a big gap, sometimes over the phone. We got lots of respect from family and patients which made it all worthwhile.”

New dad

“My daughter Erin was born two days before lockdown. I think I had it hard, but my wife had it harder – the challenges of a new baby and being shut off from everyone as well.

“My colleagues advised and supported me through that, too.”

Greg is looking forward to welcoming his second child soon and has a new role as a Professional and Practice Development nurse.

Greg explains there has been good practice to emerge from the pandemic: “How we interact and communicate, the delivery of services, use of technology and how we link them up.

“There have definitely been positives.”

Meet the Dundee and Fife nurses who overcame personal challenges to live the dream

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