Fear, anxiety and survivor’s guilt

Submitted by Vicky
Senior Staff Nurse, Main Theatres, Worthing

Where to start, that’s the first thing I find myself asking.

This year has been like no other, at home and my career to date. In many ways I feel I have lived the past year in a dream! Was this real? Were there really queues outside the supermarkets, and worrying whether we’d be able to buy toilet roll as we were down to our last roll at home, with four of us in the house!!!

Have we genuinely lived and worked through a worldwide pandemic? Or has this been a bizarre and frightening recurring dream, that I’ll eventually wake up from thinking, ‘Well that was weird!’.

During the first wave I felt mainly fear and anxiety. No-one knew what to expect. Days were spent preparing, and training, how to don and doff, proning and some of the key skills that maybe required to work in ITU.

It was overwhelming. Honestly the first wave is a bit of a blur, one minute it was busy, with a constant stream of patients, living from one shift to the next and then it just seemed to slow to a stop. I don’t think I really took much time to look back and reflect, I just got on with day to day life.

Then came a lull, where in theatres we returned to some relative normality. But there was a nervous tension. We all knew there would be a second wave, it was just a matter of when and would it be as bad or worse than first time round.

When the second wave began, many of the anxieties from before returned, but the fear this time was more focussed on just how bad things could get.

Case numbers were so much higher than the first wave, the situation seemed to escalate much quicker and we were suddenly right in the middle of everything.

There was no down time between shifts, I was constantly thinking about what was happening on the unit, who was recovering or who else may have died.

I felt a lot of guilt.

Guilt that I wasn’t giving enough time to my family and friends, who gave me hugs when I needed them and the messages of love and support from those I could not be with.

Guilt for my patients. I found myself questioning everything I did. Was I providing the best care this patient deserved? If a patient deteriorated, I would worry that I had missed something that an ITU nurse would have picked up? I needed to constantly give myself pep talks, or be reminded that this is not my specialist area and that I was providing care to the best of my abilities. But was I?

I guess I had a certain amount of survivors guilt. My family, friends and I have got through this relatively unscathed and I was reminded of the patients we had lost.

Relatively speaking 12 hours does not seem time enough to forge an attachment to patients, believe me it is.

I have found it very difficult coming to terms with the loss of patients, it is not a daily occurrence within theatres and even now I find myself thinking of them, their families and it is an emotional struggle.

I have an enormous amount of gratitude, not just to my family and friends, but to my colleagues, both in theatres and the new friendships with the amazing ITU nurses.

I am grateful to the ITU staff and anaesthetists, who supported me through each gruelling shift, with my constant worry and unending questions. They always had time to offer support and guidance, even though they too were stressed.

I am grateful to my colleagues, some of whom I have forged stronger bonds through our shared trauma and experiences. After all, only those who have journeyed the same path can truly understand.

We came together and supported each other like one huge family, at a time of crisis and I honestly could not have survived without them.

Now I feel we are teetering on a cliff edge. Case numbers have decreased dramatically and things are beginning to return to normal, but there is a nervousness about what the future holds.

I wonder how many others are concerned as I am, about a possible third wave.

But I have found a resilience and inner strength in myself, that until now I didn’t fully appreciate and I know I will survive, whatever else Covid decides to throw at me!