Teacher turned testing volunteer: ‘Some smile. Some cry. Some fight for breath’

Covid Stories: I greet patients for swabbing at a drive-through coronavirus test centre

Like teachers the world over, since the closure of schools I have been trying to adjust to a new pace of life. I have felt both guilty and relieved to have a stable, secure teaching job, knowing others face much more terrifying uncertainties. As an English and history teacher, I have also sensed the magnitude of this historical moment.

Working remotely gave me more flexibility, so I decided I’d like to get involved in the community fight-back against the virus. I searched online, found an appeal on Twitter, and the following Wednesday, a worker from the Dublin City Volunteer Centre called. She thanked me for putting my name down on their online signup system, and asked if I would be comfortable working in a Covid-19 testing centre, greeting patients, checking details and managing the queue for swabbing. My profile suggested I might be a good candidate for this type of work.

I was hesitant, but she assured me I would not be forced to do anything I was not comfortable with. The coordinator was warm, professional and patient, guiding me through what would be involved.

Having mulled it over with my fiancee, I turned up a few days later for my first shift, along with my housemate who also wanted to volunteer.

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The centre is located on the grounds of a GAA club just off the M50, and when we arrived, we were waved through at the gate by two security guards. I weaved the car through a sea of bright orange traffic cones, and parked up in one of the staff spaces on the other side of two large drive-through marquees.

Upstairs, in the repurposed clubhouse bar, we met the rest of the team. There were large, socially-distanced circles of workers gathered in groups for briefing. These comprised HSE administrative staff, nurses, volunteer leaders and volunteers. The same coordinator who had talked with me on the phone was there too, leading from the front.

We were briefed on our task, which was to welcome patients in their cars, issue information packages and face-masks, take patient details and add them to the queue for testing. Nurses would be conducting the swabbing procedure. Bedecked in masks, gloves, caps, coats and clipboards, we set to it.

A volunteer shift runs for four to five hours, with a change in teams at lunchtime. Throughout my first shift, cars rolled in constantly as the sun beat down during a remarkably warm March day. By the end of the shift, I was drained; a combination of adrenaline, heightened watchfulness, fresh air, sunshine and learning on my feet.

The weeks since have been a blur of school work and volunteering. In the afternoon, I sit quietly, reading and correcting student work on my laptop, devising plans, setting work, recording audio-analysis of stories and poems for students, and improvising like most others, trying to figure out what works best. This is the world of the unusual familiar, where normality has become strange. Instruction happens in a virtual cyberspace. Students like and comment on assigned tasks and I correct, bleary-eyed, sitting in my kitchen, staring at a screen.

The other world is the world of the familiar unusual, of solitary drives down an empty Navan Road and being waved through at Garda checkpoints. I have become used to the standing, the waiting, the careful detailing of information.

In this world, I meet all walks of life. Some smile. Some cry. Many don’t seem too visibly ill. Some struggle to talk, fighting for breath, clearly unwell. Some are infants, held in the hands of anxious parents. Some are elderly parents, chaperoned by anxious adult-children. All of the staff at the centre are incredible, patient, hard-working, good humoured.

Along with my colleagues and students in school, I took a break over the Easter holidays. The testing centre I work in also suspended operations for a short while to allow the national backlog to clear, before taking on new work. I was glad to be getting some rest, with time for writing, reading, running and dawn-chorus walks in the Phoenix Park. Neither totally strange nor completely familiar, at the end of each day, I’m still left wondering if this is what history feels like.