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Case study: Collaboration is key

We speak to Thea Sass and Mae Felongco about their work supporting COVID-19 studies during the pandemic.

An interview with:

  • Thea Sass – Senior Research Sister at University Hospital Southampton.
  • Mae Felongco – Respiratory Research Sister at University Hospital Southampton.

Thea: At the beginning of the pandemic, life as we knew it in the hospital changed rapidly. When the first lockdown was announced, so many hospital departments were closed in response to managing the pandemic to allow us to focus our resources. 

Southampton has been a major centre for research during the coronavirus pandemic, so our research aims changed almost overnight. Immediately, there were so many studies established simultaneously to examine the disease and potential treatments (including vaccine trials, COV-PoC, SPRINTER, ACCORD-2 and the RECOVERY trial), it became really clear after the first wave that we would have to pool our resources in order to make them effective. 

Mae: I contracted the virus quite early on during the pandemic, and when I returned to work we didn’t have a COVID-wide nursing research team. It became really clear to me that we needed to come together, to link up and join forces so that we could continue to research effectively. Working closely with our matrons and senior nurses, a new senior sister post was created which I was successfully appointed to. 

Thea spoke to me about the team needing a lead nurse, so I applied for the post as a band 7 on secondment. I had never done it before, so it was quite daunting, but it proved to be an incredibly rewarding role. I saw it as my way to emulate my senior leader’s visible leadership during the pandemic. 

I had 30 nurses, allied health professionals and clinical trial assistants on my team, all with different research skills- we worked together to bring out the best in each other and to learn from each other too. As nurses, we were able to bring parts of our practice to other departments which benefitted trials hugely.

Thea: All of our processes for setting up research studies were accelerated – where we would normally have around six to eight weeks to set-up a study, we were creating them within 14 days and sometimes as little as 10 days. This took an immense amount of collaboration and training in such a short space of time. 

Colleagues such as doctors, pharmacists and ward nurses from teams who wouldn't usually directly deliver research were stepping forwards and volunteering to be involved. This was fantastic but meant that we had to quickly immerse them in our research processes which was a learning curve for all of us. Training, disseminating information and making amendments to trials had to be carried out in around three days – it was an immense task and huge responsibility. 

Recruiting patients was also challenging – we were recruiting to several COVID trials at the same time so simply managing the process was a huge task in itself. 

Mae: Recruiting patients into trials required completely new approaches because of coronavirus restrictions too – taking blood samples became more complicated due to patient contact and how we then sealed samples to limit contamination. But having nurses from the respiratory, gastroenterology and cardiac teams allowed us to share different approaches that we otherwise wouldn’t have taken to our work and to find ways around these challenges wherever we could. Without the collaboration we couldn’t have done it. 

Thea: But out of the negative came the positive; we proved to ourselves that we could achieve what we previously thought was impossible. Working across disciplines and departments, learning as we went and pulling together all our capabilities to make it happen against the odds.

It’s been a real success at thrusting evidence-based practice and treatment into the spotlight – everybody from patients to fellow nursing staff, doctors and the general public are so much more aware of the importance of what we do. 

MAE: Patients have become so used to our presence on the wards, in our grey uniforms, that it’s really helped to grow their understanding of what we do as research nurses and the role that we play in their care. We’ve found that patients have become much more responsive to studies, wanting to be involved and help play their part. There’s an eagerness from patients that wasn’t there before the pandemic. 

For us, the pandemic has been the worst of times, and yet, the best of times too. The scope of our work and the understanding and exposure to the public has helped us to deliver studies on a large scale to very condensed time frames. 

Thea: Alongside all of the COVID-19 studies, we were also trying to maintain our existing studies. It was a real challenge but collaborating opened people’s eyes to what is being done and has made all of us more adaptable and useful to each other. Looking at other people’s studies has meant that we all now feel confident and capable of stepping in and taking on new things, which will ultimately benefit research.

Mae: Nurses are the heart and core of healthcare – wherever you put us, we’re at the centre of everything that happens, whether that’s in the community or in a hospital setting. Every single one of us has shown up and shared what we know to help fight COVID-19. It’s made all of us realise just how much nurses do and are capable of.