This post is for ALBERT.
Albert is an elderly, frail black man with dementia, lying in a hospital room by himself, struggling for every breath, coughing up thick phlegm, unable to communicate, suffering so much and dying of Covid. He is in his last few hours or days (if he’s unlucky). He can’t speak. He’s half out of his mind and quite terrified.
He is there now, still in that dreary room with all the blinds closed, with nothing to see or do except fight the internal fight caused by his lungs being almost totally filled up with gunge and his organs slowly failing.
I sit here and type at my desk, writing this blog as a catharsis, as a way to get Albert some witness to his suffering.
This was my first shift as a Covid volunteer. I have no medical training but when I found out that my local hospital was close to being overwhelmed and was extremely short-staffed, I thought I should offer my services. I myself wouldn’t want to go into hospital and there be no staff to look after me. At least a volunteer is better than no-one. At least, if nothing else, I can sit and give comfort.
I think I did that today. As Albert grunted and coughed and wheezed, I held his hand and stroked his leg and talked from time to time about ordinary every-day things. I told him there was a storm coming and the wind was strong and we’d had rain over night. I described the view outside the window that he couldn’t see. I told him what people were doing right now – preparing lunch, boiling rice, cooking sauce, washing up, walking to the corner shop to get the newspaper, taking their dogs for walks. But about half the time we sat in silence too. I didn’t want to continuously chatter. He continuously groaned though.
Once I held his hand, but he gently pulled it away out of my grasp. He didn’t want that. Another time he held out his other arm towards me, moaning a bit. He didn’t form any words so I wasn’t sure if he was trying to tell me anything specific. I noticed that a bit of the sticky tape on the back of his hand where the cannula was had come unstuck, but I didn’t know whether that was something to mention to a nurse or not. Although if I had wanted to mention it there was no-one within reach. Outside this little room everyone was busy. Nursing staff were gathered from all over the hospital and not in their usual stations. People didn’t know where gauze was, or where the visors were kept.
Albert felt cold to my touch, very cold. I told him this, and searched around the room for an extra blanket and heaped it on top of him.
After 45 minutes a phlebotomist came in to take some bloods and noticed the cannula wasn’t in the back of Albert’s hand, and that, in fact, the IV fluids had been discharging onto the bed and he was lying in a pool of cold, wet sheets. How hadn’t I noticed?! I was horrified! Was that what he had been trying to communicate when he was reaching out his hand a couple of times? I have no idea. I put my head outside the door and asked for a nurse to come and help. She was busy typing on a mobile phone and said she couldn’t do two things at once, but she would come soon. I understood.
I felt so sorry for Albert, who was now lying without covers in the freezing cold. The window was open of course. Ventilation is extremely important, I was grateful for that. But it is winter, and if you’re lying in water in a thin hospital gown it must have felt bitterly cold.
It wasn’t long before the nurse and I were rolling Albert over, yanking the wet sheets out from under him, and tucking a dry one in place. A fresh sheet and blanket were put back over him, but privately I didn’t think that would be anywhere near enough to keep him warm. He was skeletally thin and could have done with a duvet, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Not long after that, with Albert all the time moaning and struggling for breath, I doffed my PPE (visor, mask, gloves, and thin plastic apron) into the appropriate bin, and washed my hands in the sink up to my elbows. Outside, nurses were hurrying to and fro, busy, so busy, tasks piled high. I walked round the corner and stood in the corridor against the wall watching the commotion, thinking of Albert, now completely alone, fighting his last fight, probably still freezing cold.
No-one paid me any attention. No-one had any time. I didn’t know where the task force leader was, or who was the most senior nurse to ask what I should do next; but honestly, I didn’t want to do anything else next. It was a baptism of fire and I felt a little overwhelmed. Soon I went to the staff room, collected my things, and headed off to the redeployment hub to tell them I was going home. We had a quick debrief, which I found helpful. They were very sympathetic – for everything, for the whole situation, for me, for Albert.
I went home, had a shower, and made up my mind to hug my children closer than usual this evening. Covid is cruel to the elderly. I hated seeing this man’s suffering. Apparently he has great grandchildren. But he has to lie and die alone. Relatives aren’t allowed in the ward. It’s heartbreaking..
I’ll think of Albert for a long time. My next shift is tomorrow, and if I get sent back into the Covid black ward I’ll ask after him, see if I can sit with him again. I’ll let you know.
People: Wear your masks. Keep your distance. Help prevent people like Albert from suffering and dying.