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SELFLESS in their own words

SELFLESS by Jessica van der Weert documents the lives of healthcare teams in Northumbria and Brent at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Capturing this extraordinary moment in time with 30-plus portraits, the powerful exhibition is open to view by the public in Liverpool (19 May to 19 June, RCP at The Spine) and London (1 July to December 2022, RCP at Regent’s Park). Entry is FREE.

Here are some of the stories from those featured in the exhibition.

Dr Charlotte Routh, acute medicine consultant, Northumbria and RCP member

By far the most emotionally exhausting part was juggling childcare and family life. My partner maintained our family life and initial home-schooling, he dealt with the kids’ emotions as I drove off to work and then wasn’t home for bedtime. A few weeks in, the reality hit that my 7-year-old daughter was petrified I would catch COVID and die; for days after that I cried driving into work. An emotion in my daughter that would reoccur and manifest itself in different ways in all subsequent waves.

I definitely overcompensated on my days off at home! Trying to be an amazing Mum and give our family as much fun as we could. I will look back fondly on those days though where we had some of our best ever family times despite the constraints of the pandemic.

I contracted COVID in December 2020. I narrowly avoided hospital admission, but had nearly five months off work. I have long Covid. Every day for me is a challenge of balancing my symptoms with normal life. I have grown and life has changed as a result of long Covid.

In those early days when this photo was taken I look tired, but that was because I had just finished a 13-hour shift. But I had energy, I had vigour and I could embrace everything that was thrown at me, and I think I did.

My strongest memories will be around everyone just rallying and getting stuck in. The small things got set aside and we worked together as teams to do the best we could in the situation we faced.

Breige Cain, physician associate and teaching fellow, obstetrics and gynaecology, Northumbria and FPA member

Physically, I struggled with the PPE in long theatre cases and when speaking to patients – it really felt an obstacle to clear communication, which was challenging when at times, we would be giving difficult diagnoses and having sensitive conversations. Mentally, one of the biggest challenges was having no escape from work – it was all consuming. Usually I use the gym, outdoors, trips away to help me destress from the work environment and ‘switch off’. Not having that was exhausting, especially when people were suffering so greatly in so many ways. There was no release, and so I carried a lot of that home, and it was difficult. Thank God I have a great husband, who also worked on the front line – we had many stories to share at dinner time!

Emotionally, I found it a struggle to witness people suffering in the various ways they did – with physical illness, through illness, through loneliness, not being able to grieve or mourn losses. I felt so much compassion for those that followed the rules to the letter, meaning they missed out on precious last moments, and those who struggled through labour and delivery, and took their babies home to an empty house with no visitors. At the same time, I worked in a team of excellent doctors, nurses, AHPs and admin staff who tried their best to keep spirits high. I don’t think many memories from this time will ever leave me.

Dr Alison Lee, consultant cardiologist and honorary senior clinical lecturer, Northumbria, and RCP Fellow

As I look back on these times I am pleased to reflect that I stepped up without consideration and hopefully made a difference. I was proud to work in my team. Through all the media hype and the constantly changing advice, we were always there for each other. Thank you to the NHS and specially ‘Team Northumbria’.

With the greatest of thanks to all at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, AT Medics, Burnley Medical Practice, Chandu Tailor & Son Funeral Directors and the Jerwood Foundation.