Coronavirus heroes: ‘Ireland has looked after us so it’s time to return the favour’

Thousands of nurses and doctors from abroad form backbone of our Covid-19 battle

Jincy Jerry, assistant director of nursing in infection prevention and control at the Mater: “We knew when the first case hit Ireland we would be the ones taking patients.” Photograph: Tom Honan

Jincy Jerry, assistant director of nursing in infection prevention and control at the Mater: “We knew when the first case hit Ireland we would be the ones taking patients.” Photograph: Tom Honan

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In December 2019, Jerry Jincy was called to a meeting at Dublin’s Mater hospital where she learned preparations were to begin immediately for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in Ireland.

As assistant director of nursing in infection prevention and control, she was assigned a lead role in guiding the Dublin hospital through the pandemic.

“We have the national isolation unit in the Mater so we knew when the first case hit Ireland we would be the ones taking patients,” says Jincy who is originally from Kerala in southern India. “We started developing algorithms and guidelines when Covid-19 was first reported in China and worked hard to create a strategy to protect our staff and patients.”

Jincy has spent the past few months providing expert advice on infection control to colleagues across the hospital, while also assessing the hospital’s personal protective equipment (PPE) and providing training in how to use the gear.

“The last few months my role has changed a lot and there has been an exponential increase in workload. National guidelines on PPE have changed multiple times; it’s a real challenge to provide PPE training to more than 3,500 employees in line with these changes.”

She admits balancing her personal life with work demands has become extremely difficult and is grateful for the support of colleagues.

A mother of three, including a teenage son with autism and an 18-month-old baby, she works 13 hours a day Monday-Friday and stays on call over the weekend.

“I’ve missed milestones with the baby. The nine-year-old understands he needs to be supportive and has taken on the role of minding both his brothers. He’s doing a brilliant job, I’m really proud of him.

“I’m also lucky to have an incredible husband who is the king of multitasking. When I reach home, I’m extremely tired. If he wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be able to work like this.

“I’ve had great opportunities here and Ireland has looked after us – so it’s time to return the favour.”

‘Invisible fear’

Jincy is just one of the thousands of foreign nurses currently working on the frontline of the pandemic in Irish hospitals. Most come from India and the Philippines, with smaller numbers coming from Africa.

Foreign doctors have also played a vital role in the fight against Covid-19 in Irish hospitals. Ireland’s share of foreign-trained doctors is the third-highest among western countries, at 42.3 per cent, according to the OECD.

Dr Waqas Rehman, an intensive care unit registrar at the Mater hospital who has worked in Ireland for 10 years, says all health workers are carrying an “invisible fear” they will bring the virus home.

Dr Waqas Rehman, an ICU registrar at the Mater: “This is the life we have chosen and I feel distinguished to be serving humanity in this way.”
Dr Waqas Rehman, an ICU registrar at the Mater: “This is the life we have chosen and I feel distinguished to be serving humanity in this way.”

Rehman, who has two children, showers after every shift and keeps his work clothes in a special bag. “It was overwhelming at the start. There was all this data coming from China about the disease that nobody knew anything about.

“I tried to warn my children and my daughter understands, but my son is special needs and can’t understand what’s going on or why dad isn’t playing with him. But this is the life we have chosen and I feel distinguished to be serving humanity in this way.”

Treating Covid-19 patients in the ICU is a constantly evolving process, says Rehman. However, he feels confident working alongside a team of doctors he describes as “some of the best people in the country”.

Rehman also worries about his parents who are cocooning in their home in his native Pakistan. His mother has asthma and many people are not taking the lockdown restrictions seriously, he says.

Fewer presentations

Dr Taciane Alegra, a paediatric registrar at the emergency department of Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, says the number of sick children presenting has dropped noticeably since March.

“Our main attendances are usually viral infections but, with the schools closed, the spread of common viruses among children has stopped,” says the Brazilian doctor. However, she worries that children who do need medical treatment are staying home.

“We believe people are afraid to come to the emergency department because of Covid. But a lot of adaptations were done around the hospital to respect social distancing and to be prepared for patients.”

Like many non-EU, foreign-trained doctors, Alegra is not allowed to join specialist training schemes and says opportunities for job progression are scarce. Becoming a consultant “is almost impossible” for a Brazilian doctor, she adds.

“I have a PhD and extensive experience in research but I feel that doesn’t make any difference so it’s a double loss. I’m not able to reach my full potential and Ireland is not using my skills properly.”

Despite these barriers, Alegra, who moved to Ireland because of her husband’s job, is happy in her work. “My colleagues are lovely, they give me opportunities whenever they can. I’ve never felt diminished at work. ”

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