Abbi Bow, a second-year medical student at the University of Bristol, was just 19 when she began working at one of the city’s hospitals on the Covid frontline.
“I realise it is a young age to see and work with people on the edge of life,” she said. “And I do think a lot about the patients I looked after who didn’t make it. I remember their names and faces. I don’t know if that will ever leave me. Sometimes I see a person in the street who looks like a patient that died and it hits you – you’re back there with them.”
But Bow turns this into a positive. “After I become a doctor I will have already been exposed to so much. Learning how to cope with this now will be a benefit in the long term.”
When they worked for their A-levels and dreamed of medical school, young people like Bow could not have imagined they would be caught up in a coronavirus crisis.
But more than 500 students from the University of Bristol’s medical school have donned PPE and worked alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals and GP practices during placements, as volunteers or as healthcare assistants. Many thousands more across the county have done the same.
Bow, now 20, took on a post as a healthcare assistant in April last year and juggles the job with her studies. She works intimately with patients, helping them wash, dress, eat and drink. Some cases stick in her mind.
“Quite recently I was helping care for a patient with Covid,” said Bow. “He was talking but clearly exhausted. His body was tired from fighting Covid.” He didn’t make it. “It’s heartbreaking, a very weird experience. It’s almost as if the person disappears but the body is still there. His wife is now a widow, his child doesn’t have a parent any more.”
She helped another patient say goodbye to loved ones via a computer screen because they could not visit. “I sat there most of the day holding his hand and playing his favourite music. I was this stranger in full PPE holding his hand but I like to think I brought some comfort.”
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A third patient Bow worked with was in a coma and looking extremely ill. “Then I went in for a shift and she was sat up in bed eating yoghurt. I thought: ‘That can’t be the same person.’” She went over and chatted about the bright pink nail polish the patient was wearing, which her granddaughter had applied before she went into hospital. “It’s great to think the intervention from us worked and helped her body to fight back. That’s a sweet memory.”
Bow remains optimistic. “It’s sometimes difficult. You wake up and it’s Groundhog Day. We’re not seeing friends and family or going out for dinner or the gym, doing the things we love. It’s good to hold on to the idea we will be able to do these things in the future. Once we can, I think we’ll cherish them more.”
Luke Ottewell, a 22-year-old fifth year student, has been placed at Gloucestershire Royal hospital helping junior doctors by carrying out tasks such as taking blood samples, inserting cannulas and ordering X-rays.
He was sent home to Spain from university during the first lockdown last spring. “But I realised I’d rather be here helping out.” Ottewell returned in the summer and “got stuck in”.
Like his fellow fifth years, he has had to balance revision and caring for ill people. His routine as he prepared for his finals was to begin revising at 6.30am, work a 9am-5pm shift at the hospital and then get back to the revision from 5pm-9pm. “It has been easier to get out of bed in the morning because of the desire to help out during a national emergency,” he said.
Andrew Blythe, the director of the university’s medical programme and a part-time GP, said the students had been exposed to more trauma and stress than most of their predecessors.
“Undoubtedly, they are seeing more sicker patients,” he said. “When they experience death for the first time it is a very powerful and moving experience.”
A few have paused their studies because of physical or mental health issues but nobody has dropped out. “Their experiences are going to have a profound effect on their whole understanding of medicine. I think for a lot of them the pandemic has motivated them.”
Chanelle Smith, another fifth year student aged 22 working with critically ill patients at the Gloucestershire Royal, said her duties ranged from taking bloods to writing discharge summaries. She is about to begin working on the vaccination programme.
“We’re in a storm,” she said. “It’s hard to remain positive but if we can come through this tunnel we’ll all be so proud. Working in such challenging times makes you stronger. I think it’s increased my resilience. It’s been nerve-racking, humbling, exciting but I feel I’m more prepared to be a doctor.”