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Supporting families during COVID-19 - Mary-Anne's Story

As I walked out of the Royal Stoke Hospital on the sunny afternoon of Friday 29 May 2020 tears welled up in my eyes. Smiles, laughter and tears are all too common an occurrence in a hospital setting and this has never been so evident as during the current pandemic. So why was I crying?

The previous month I had been deployed to work with the Patient Experience Team at the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNM) and can remember feeling quite nervous as I arrived at the Royal Stoke Hospital. I was going to be helping to deliver a newly established Family Support Service. Due to the restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, people taken to hospital via ambulance could not be accompanied by family or friends and once admitted to hospital, patients were not allowed any visitors. Family and friends were at home worrying about their loved ones and didn’t always find it easy to find out how they were.

My role as a Family Support Officer involved liaising with clinical staff on the wards to obtain daily updates on patients to feedback to relatives over the phone. I also delivered verbal or written messages to patients from their relatives, received and delivered belongings for the patients e.g. mobile phone, iPad, toiletries, or sentimental items, and arranged and facilitated Facetimes and WhatsApp video calls.

Some phone calls that we made to relatives could be quite short, while others were much longer especially as we started to build up relationships with the relatives. For some it was the only time they spoke to anybody as they sat at home worrying about their loved ones and waiting for us to ring. Equally the phone calls could be happy or sad. Sometimes we were ringing to check that the relative knew that their loved one was going to be discharged home while others were to a relative, who having spoken with the doctors, knew that their loved one was not going to get better.

The Facetime and WhatsApp video calls were always interesting. Wearing a mask, visor, gloves and apron I met people for the very first time. It certainly didn’t feel natural to me but I was assured on several occasions that in spite of wearing a mask and visor people could still see from my eyes that I was smiling. I will never forget the joy and a few tears on the faces of husbands and wives on seeing each other, albeit via a screen, for the first time in weeks and being able to say how much they loved each other and the laughter of a family as they were able to sing Happy Birthday to their Mum/Grandma.

I have a lot of memories and for every sad memory there is a happy one. I remember one Sunday morning meeting a man who had walked for two hours to get to the hospital to find out how his Mum, diagnosed with Covid-19 the day before, was and which ward she was on so that he could tell his Dad. He was also hand delivering a card for her from them both. We never knew what was written in that card, we could only imagine, but he was adamant that his Mum must receive the card.

Of course there were other moments which would not only make me laugh but also my colleagues. One such moment was when I was facilitating a WhatsApp video call for a patient in a side room. Once again I was wearing a mask, visor, apron and gloves and the nurse very kindly closed the door so there was some privacy for the call. It was a hot day and as I stood there holding the phone for the patient not only did my glasses steam up but also my visor. At the end of the video call the patient took one look at me and said ‘oh you have steamed up haven’t you duck’. I have to say that was a slight understatement as, not being familiar with the layout of the side room, having located the washbasin, I then struggled to see where the bin was in order to be able to doff the apron and gloves before leaving the side room!

So, you’re probably thinking am I going to tell you why I was crying. Initially, I wasn’t too sure myself, but, having had the chance to reflect on my experience during my deployment, I have realised that there wasn’t just one reason but several.

First of all, quite simply, my placement as a Family Support Officer during the Covid-19 pandemic had just come to an end. I had thoroughly enjoyed being back in a hospital setting, talking with patients and relatives and liaising with clinical and non clinical staff from all professions. Anyone who knows me well will understand when I say that I was doing all the things I love to do. The work I had been doing was appreciated by all and everybody was so grateful for everything we were doing. It had been an extremely rewarding and fulfilling experience and I felt I had made a difference.

From day one, I had been welcomed by and made to feel very much part of the Patient Experience Team at both Royal Stoke and County Hospitals. After seven short weeks I was sad to be leaving a team that I had enjoyed working with, during what can only be described as a unique experience for everybody.

I was also thinking about all the people I had met or spoken to via telephone or video call and whose lives I had been part of, if only for a short time. For some of the patients I met I knew the outcome of their stay in hospital and for others I will never know.

Perhaps, I also just needed to cry. We were still in lockdown and didn’t know when it would end. Who knows? What I do know is that the experience I had I can now bring back to my role as Head of Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement in the Network to the benefit of all.

I would like to say a very big thank you to all the patients, relatives and staff, especially the Patient Experience Team, at UHNM during that time, for giving me an experience I will never forget.

By Mary-Anne Darby, Head of Patient & Public Involvement and Engagement

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.