A senior frontline worker treating coronavirus patients has laid bare the ruthless nature of the bug that “takes people you don’t expect to die”.
Dr Paul Smith has revealed the sweeping force of the virus on sufferers ranging from “healthy and fit” teenagers as young as 16 to those in their 50s and 60s.
The intensive care consultant has worked at Queen’s Hospital in Burton for eight years but saw life in his unit turn upside down with the dawn of the pandemic.
Detailing the “extremely emotional” reality of seeing people unable to breathe, Dr Smith spoke of the toll it takes on the staff fighting to save lives.
“There have been certain cases that get to you, especially those with the responsibility of a young family,” the 46-year-old told StaffordshireLive.
“The idea of me becoming unwell and leaving my own family is horrible and when you see cases like that it’s distressing.
“I’ve been talking it through with my wife and thinking about it, then we hug and get on with it.
“2020 has been totally different and a year that never wants to be repeated. It’s been exceptionally hard, emotional, difficult and lots of challenges.
“The most difficult was the first case which was Amged El-Hawrani, the ear, nose and throat surgeon at Queen’s.
“I did move him to Leicester to help him. That was hard and set the tone for the next year and how much of a struggle it was going to be.
“I’ve seen fit and healthy people come in with this horrible disease.
“We’re using new treatments not knowing particularly if they work. It has not been proven, unlike antibiotics for pneumonia when they feel better five days later.
“Covid generally stays with them for months with severe lung injury.”
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Dad-of-five Dr Smith is working at the sharp end of coronavirus with patients suffering low oxygen levels and falling into critical condition.
The intensive care unit is where those most in need are supported with their breathing and oxygen levels, often using invasive or non-invasive ventilators.
The extreme intervention has led to other health issues for patients, including blood clots which can end up in the lungs, strokes and heart attacks.
Dr Smith said: “It’s a dangerous disease and it takes people you don’t expect to die.
“It’s a horrible disease that destroys lives and families.
“This wave we have more middle-aged people and it’s been extremely challenging as they have got young families or working to retirement with their whole life to look forward to and it’s snatched from them.
“We have seen people from 16 to any age – between 50 and 60 mainly. It’s the young people with young families that is particularly difficult and emotional.
“It’s had a massive impact on the whole team.”
Living with his wife, also a frontline worker, and five children, aged between 16 and nine, the doctor said the troubles of the virus have seriously impacted family life.
Juggling the commitments of shifts and childcare amid the schools lockdown has been a huge challenge, Dr Smith said.
He added: “It’s very challenging – I’ve never showered as much as I have done this last year.
“I can be out three or four times a day and every time I have to change my clothes and have a shower.
“My wife is a nurse as well and we have to get moving shifts around and provide childcare for our children, who are all school age.
“Back in May we did discuss me isolating, as many professionals have had to take that decision, but we felt that I didn’t need to do that.
“I’ve not had a day off in the last two weeks.
“Everyone is working outside of their comfort zone and we’re all working as a team.
“All of us have been extremely affected by this.”
Dr Smith added that he has no time for those who deny that the virus exists and urges everyone to stick to the rules, however draconian they may be to endure.
Sacrificing a social life for now is the only way to reduce the pressure the NHS is under but there will be “sunshine after the rain,” the doctor said.
He said: “If people can’t believe what the news is saying to them and what the doctors are saying then I haven’t got time for them.
“This is real, the government and doctors would not make this up.
“The lockdown does cause economic issues and thousands of people have lost their jobs but we must take measures to save lives and that’s the strategy of the government.”
To those not observing the regulations, he said: “You wouldn’t go for a walk on a motorway so why bother meeting people and having that party?
“Don’t take unnecessary risks. Hopefully we can do that later when this is over.
“It’s frustrating when people are critically ill on ICU and they have done that.
“If everyone can carry on following the rules, then eventually we can go on holiday again.
“I think that most people are sticking to the rules and would ask them to carry on as it’s working.
“We are starting to see it drop off in hospital admissions, as there is a lag of about four weeks.
“It’s starting to have an effect and if we keep going we’ll be able to have some time in the summer when it gets better.
“There will be sunshine after the rain and if you get offered the vaccine, please take it.
“It’s been a huge weight off my mind having it and knowing the risk of carrying it home will be a lot lower.
“The way out of this pandemic is the vaccine and hopefully getting back to a normal society.”