‘I have been an infectious disease specialist for 30 years. I have never seen a virus like Covid-19’

Covid Stories: ‘It is shocking to see how ill men and women, young and old, admitted to hospital are’

I have been an infectious disease specialist for more than 30 years, and in all that time I have never seen a virus like Covid-19. It is shocking to see how ill some of the men and women, young and old, who have been admitted to hospital are, and the danger this awful virus poses for those caring for them.

We all know that we could be the patient soon. It is the first time in my professional life that I worry about getting an infection - this infection.

It is shocking to see people in their 50s and 60s, and those who are younger and older, who were previously healthy in hospitals gasping for breath. I have never seen a lung infection get worse so quickly in that small proportion of patients who need hospital care.

As a doctor, you can feel helpless because, as this virus is so new, we don’t have a range of drugs to specifically treat it yet. The main care we can provide is oxygen to support their breathing.

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The excellent doctors, both young and highly experienced, the nurses and physiotherapists are all so compassionate, while they expertly provide high quality care in the patients’ rooms. And beyond, every single worker in the hospital is working together to provide the best care for patients, and keep each other safe too.

As president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the largest postgraduate medical training body, I have been focused on the training of our doctors for the past couple of years, with less clinical work. Returning to the frontline during this emergency was important to me, to support my colleagues and use my expertise to help patients recover.

The teamwork is fantastic. I learned how to gown up in personal protective equipment from one of the doctors on our training programme. I have to concentrate fully when putting on the gown, mask, googles, gloves in the right order, so I protect myself before seeing patients. We have a buddy system, so a colleague is helping me to get in and out of PPE every time. Colleagues instinctively correct me when I make a mistake. We are all looking out for each other; we have each others’ backs.

My observations from being back on the wards is how afraid patients are. “Will I get better, will my breathing get worse, will I give it to my loved ones, will it come back?” I reassure them as best I can.

I’m struck by the loneliness of solitude in their room. The hospitals itself feels strange - full of staff and patients with no outsiders calling, as there are no family members permitted to visit at this time. This is so hard for those who are ill; meeting the doctors, nurses and physiotherapists covered from head to toe in PPE is scary for them.

I am proud of our junior doctors who have adapted quickly to care for patients with a new illness. The college is supporting them and their consultant colleagues by bringing them weekly clinical updates, to share our evolving knowledge of Covid-19 and how it impacts patients to help us in this fight.

I am proud of the many Irish doctors who have heard Ireland’s call, and returned home from abroad to work on the frontline. I am also proud that Ireland took Covid-19 seriously from the start. We are making strides to break the chain of infection, and to protect the most vulnerable. It is thanks to every individual living here and the efforts they are making to stay home and stay safe. This is how to protect yourself, your family and friends and the frontline workers.

While we are all in the trenches now, on a hopeful note, when I was training in the 1990s, Aids was the big killer virus. Now there are effective treatments, those who have the HIV infection can live a normal life. Science and research provides solutions as it did with HIV/Aids. A vaccine will come for Covid-19, although not for a while. New clinical trials underway in Ireland will help us to understand how to beat this virus, and there is unprecedented national and international collaboration.

For now we continue to care for each other - it’s our best medicine.

Prof Mary Horgan, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, is a consultant in infectious diseases at Cork University Hospital