‘They are heroes every day, not just during this pandemic’ – UoY’s Frontline Students

For many of us, the only things we’ve witnessed actively spreading during this pandemic are Instagram challenges, which are only deadly in view of their tediousness.

However, for many of our colleagues, this fickle time-waste seems a dream away. Due to overwhelming demand for the NHS, many have found themselves at the center of a deadly battle against COVID-19.

Nursing students, midwifery students, medical students – over 230 students from Hull York Medical School (HYMS) and the University of York have been among those we have clapped for each Thursday, whether fully qualified or as volunteers. Alongside them have been their lecturers and professors; once practicing clinicians, doctors or nurses, they have been recalled to the wards to work as colleagues with their students.

Ruth Barker, a fourth year medical student working in York Hospital as a trained nurse, rather sees this commitment as a testament, and no hurdle for the students’ character:

I think generally, the HYMS students seem to have taken it in their stride about starting work earlier than planned. I suppose by the end of 5 years of preparing for the job they’re probably ready to get their teeth stuck into it anyway.  

I didn’t really think too hard about going to work during the pandemic, as it is what I do anyway when I’m not at Uni anyway. I also recognised that they probably needed a big cohort of nurses available to work to cover for staff sickness and increased demands on services.

Furthermore, when asked if she felt prepared going into the wards, Ruth replied that:

I don’t feel thrown into the deep end. There are fewer patients in the hospital currently than there are normally, and staff are working really well as a team, hence I feel well supported. I was initially daunted about how to apply all the PPE correctly but after a shift I got to grips with this.

Being part of and supported by this team, I asked Ruth what response they had received from York Hospital’s existing staff.

I think staff appreciate the help of bank staff such as myself (however this is always the case, they always could always do with a spare pair of hands!) Something I have really noticed is how kind staff are being to one another. They’re working really well as a team during the pandemic.

However, times are tough. The Nursing Times reported ‘almost all nursing staff were feeling more stressed and anxious than usual’ through their campaign Covid-19: Are You OK?. Annette Kennedy, the 28th President of the International Council of Nurses, further stated that “There is strong evidence that nurses are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and are at risk of burnout”. It seems therefore as if the student nurses, while seeing themselves as simply being ‘a spare pair of hands’, are playing a vital role in supporting NHS staff during this pandemic.

Press releases from York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust have noted this, particularly thanking student liaison teams coordinating the use of 36 iPads donated by HMYS to help connect patients to loved ones.

The dean of HYMS, Professor Una Macleod, has further stated that they ‘recognise the increasing pressure our NHS colleagues face at this time and are committed to supporting them’, and is ‘confident that [her students] will go on to make a real difference to our communities’.

While students in earlier years may have been unable to join in this effort by supporting the NHS so directly, we also caught up with first year medical student Kate Page to see the sentiment of those in the early stages of this course, seeing their soon-to-be colleagues battling this disease.

As a course based around practical experience, celebrating ‘early and sustained clinical exposure’, we asked Kate what she thought the response would have been had the university given students the chance to continue on these.

At HYMS we start doing placements almost immediately, I’ve done half a day a week at either York hospital or my assigned GP surgery since October last year. These placements came to a stop as soon as the university closed in March, and we are unlikely to start back any time soon. I have looked at various volunteering options; the medical school has advised that there are opportunities for us to do this and have sent us a list of roles we can carry out in York and the surrounding area. I’ve recently become a volunteer for a local GP surgery that is looking for people to support their elderly and vulnerable patients, but this is a more relaxed role and they haven’t needed me to do anything for them yet. I’m not sure about whether third and fourth years are still carrying out placements.

I think it’s a difficult balance when it comes to going back to placement; on the one hand we need to learn and there’s nothing better than practical experience, but on the other hand the NHS is under a lot of strain at the moment and it is very difficult if not impossible to ask health care professionals to find time for us in their already busy schedules. I think that ultimately we must observe the guidelines and continuing on placement at our stage of learning wouldn’t really adhere to that, so I imagine if the university allowed us to continue in any capacity at this stage many would find this concerning.

However, once the government begins to lift restrictions placements will inevitably restart. We asked Kate how she would feel starting a placement in the wake of COVID-19:

Mixed feelings I suppose. This scenario is unprecedented and I don’t think many people expected this to happen, and this may well be the biggest health disaster that I will ever witness in my lifetime. As a medical student it’s natural to be intrigued by the situation that is unfolding in hospitals all across the country, and I imagine that starting a placement during COVID-19 would allow me to see a range of scenarios that I may never see after I’ve qualified. But of course the health of my family is also important to me and I’m aware that me being on the front line would not only pose a risk to my health but theirs too. My Mum is also a key worker, so me passing it to her could ultimately prevent her from doing her job, and my Dad has asthma and other respiratory issues, and whilst these are mild there is a strong possibility that contracting this disease could make him seriously ill.

These mixed feelings seemed to be shared by sixth form students, waiting to begin their degrees. However, for Poppy Penston, who plans to start a Nursing degree at York in September, the overwhelming sentiment was one of admiration:

Even before the pandemic, I was nervous to start my journey into nursing, but felt excited to help out with vulnerable people and try make a positive difference in their recovery. However, since I have seen the effect that corona virus has had on everyone, I have felt nothing but pride for everyone in the NHS and could not be happier to be joining them one day. I’ve had people asking me whether I regret choosing to become a nurse since the start of this, but the truth is I feel the opposite.

However, there does seem to be an incredible sense of pride for these students throughout the University. YUSU Officer for Health and Wellbeing Steph Hayle commented that:

I am so impressed by the incredible work being done by our student nurses each and everyday. I was a STYC for a nursing house in my second year, and I’m so proud seeing all my STYClets going on to do some truly brilliant work supporting people across the country. I have written to the Universities Minister supporting a call to write off debt for medical students working in the ‘front line’, and I am increasingly impressed with how well they are managing throughout the crisis.

We asked Ruth Barker and Kate Page their opinions of this idea; the new rhetoric of doctors and nurses being on the front line, and opinions that they are the ‘new heroic figures’, whether they saw this in the lecturers being called back into service, the students applying for provisional registration and the doctors and nurses they work alongside.

Ruth: I think it frustrating that it’s taken a pandemic for frontline health workers to be fully appreciated for what they do day in day out. They are heroes every day not just during this pandemic. 

Kate: Health care professionals have always done amazing things for people during their times of need, and this is no exception. There have been stories of amazing altruism carried out by health care workers all across the country, and it is so nice to see that the public are being very supportive of the NHS during these difficult times. However, recognising NHS workers as heroes is no substitute for taking whatever steps we can as a nation to protect those who protect us. It is true that key workers are on a front line of sorts, but this is a very different kind of war, and the decisions all of us make really do have a huge impact on how the situation unfolds on that frontline. The one thing that the majority of health care workers want more than being hailed as heroes is for their patients, friends and families to stay safe. This is a responsibility that we all share as a society, so if we truly want to recognise our key workers we must follow the guidelines and do everything we can to protect them.

I have to concur absolutely. Last Thursday, the first of which was not greeted by beautiful blue skies, I expected to hear a second thunder rolling across from the town as everyone braved the rain in one simple show of support. I was horrified when this was won over by some rain. This comes alongside the recent reports from the International Council of Nurses that “the stigma of working with Covid-19 patients has led to abuse and aggression from members of the public”. –

One thing that came across shatteringly clearly in Kate and Ruth’s answers was a complete faith in their profession, a well-won pride and absolute duty.

Pandemic or not, these people are indeed heroes, and deserve to be shown the respect and patience each has earned.

When contacted for comment, YUSU Community & Wellbeing Officer Steph Hayle added that:

YUSU are asking students who are key workers to share their experiences of working during Covid-19 here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSebWq0atmHsR4riSE2Q0fSodMKkXotHrVhS92DNNTi-Y-viJw/viewform?usp=sf_link 
so we can shine a spotlight on the work these students are doing to make a real difference and support others” .

Photo: Banksy’s ‘Game Changer’. @banksy/instagram/PA