The Rutherford Cancer Centre North East 06 May 2020

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Wondering what life is like for medical workers behind the coronavirus frontline? A cancer nurse details her experience of treating patients who are more vulnerable than ever.

While people across the world focus their attention on workers on the coronavirus frontline, behind the scenes, specialist doctors and nurses continue to support patients with life threatening conditions such as cancer amid the wider strain on our health services. But how do they keep themselves and their patients safe while doing so? 

Revealing what it’s really like to support vulnerable patients during this difficult time, Ashleigh McDonald, a SACT (Systemic Anti-Cancer Therapy) nurse at Rutherford Cancer Centre North East in Northumberland, shares her experience below.

“I have been a nurse for 16 years, always working with cancer patients in some form. I joined the Rutherford Cancer Centre North East (a private centre which is now treating NHS patients) just over a year ago. 

“Due to the nature of oncology treatment, we can work ‘regular’ hours Monday to Friday 8am till 5pm, as patients come in for regular chemotherapy and other treatments. The days are busy, but we are lucky that we can provide one-to-one care, which is absolutely critical given the current need for social distancing – especially in vulnerable groups such as cancer patients.

“It’s an unbelievably tough time for our patients. Many have just got their head round the notion that they’ve gone from being a healthy individual to suddenly being diagnosed with cancer, and now they are having to deal with the risk of a global pandemic on top of it. Having a strong support network is so important during treatment, but that is made all the more challenging due to social distancing. 

“We can’t even let patients bring a friend or family member to their appointments anymore, which used to be the norm. What is already a very isolating experience for these individuals is now even more so. 

“As a nurse, you can tell when a patient is having a bad day or needs a cuddle, but that’s no longer allowed. It’s hard seeing someone struggle and not being able to reach out and offer them that support.

“One of the hardest things we’re dealing with at the moment is the conflicting advice that surrounds something as new as Covid-19. The government have rightly been very clear about staying home if you have a temperature, but for patients going through chemotherapy, a temperature can also be a sign of sepsis. For this reason we need to see them immediately, but of course there’s always a lot of confusion and worry from both sides on whether this could be the start of a coronavirus case instead.

“At the centre, we need to be extra cautious. A healthcare patient co-ordinator takes everyone’s temperature before they are let inside. The lead nurse on my team is currently self-isolating due to having a slight temperature – you can’t be too careful. 

“We were always strict on hygiene and cleanliness before the pandemic began, but Covid-19 has taken that to a new level”

“We were always strict on hygiene and cleanliness before the pandemic began, but Covid-19 has taken that to a new level. My hands are red raw from the constant amount of hand washing, as we need to minimise all risk to our patients. Their immune systems can be severely compromised due to treatment, and it is so important that we do everything in our power to ensure we are not spreading coronavirus.

“When everything became very serious in the UK, the consultants met with their patients to explain that treatment such as chemotherapy can seriously hamper their immune system, and gave them the option to postpone treatment until the worst of it was over. However, every patient here has decided to crack on with treatment. I get it – their view tends to be that in two years’ time, coronavirus will (hopefully) be over, but they might massively regret not fighting their cancer at an earlier stage. That’s why it’s so crucial that we step in and help the NHS with patients as much as possible so that there is less of a backlog when life goes back to normal.

Healthcare professional wearing full protective gear

“Quite a few of our patients have breast cancer, and the treatment process for that can affect their blood count, killing good cells as well as bad. They are more at risk of infection, but have decided to continue treatment. Many tend to be mothers, so they’re also doing it for their children as they want to be fighting fit for them. As a mum myself, I understand that and would probably feel the same.

“I am a single mum to two children, a seven-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter. Their father lives in London so unfortunately is unable to help with childcare during lockdown, however the kids’ school has been fantastic. They are teaching around twenty key workers’ children, from paramedics to air ambulance staff.

“In the past, I’ve had to miss various school plays or events due to work and have felt a bit guilty about that. However my kids are really proud of what I’m doing and know that mummy is helping very poorly people. I hope it sets a good example for them in the future.

“The work can be challenging and draining at times, but you’re trained to do things like this and it feels so important that we remain open and available to treat people in a coronavirus-free environment as far from an A&E ward as possible. Our main aim is to keep them safe – while keeping everyone else safe at the same time.”

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