'War with an invisible enemy': Shropshire hospital staff reflect on life in the age of Covid

"It often felt like we were preparing for war with an invisible enemy."

Claire Heathfield and David Blackwell
Claire Heathfield and David Blackwell

Those were the words of David Blackwell, an operating department practitioner at Shropshire's Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital, who has spoken of the ways the trust's theatre teams had to adapt during the pandemic.

He told the trust's annual general meeting this week that following an emergency training day at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital "the enormity of the situation became apparent".

The meeting acted as an opportunity to reflect on the past 18 months, to highlight the challenges faced and learn lessons from them.

And it also allowed those who found themselves on the front line to explain how they felt, both professionally and emotionally, as the scale of the crisis became apparent.

"The barrage of mixed emotions at the beginning was mainly uncertainty, which led to anxiety and fear of the unknown," he said.

"In order to overcome this we had to roll our sleeves up and get to work.

"We had to work together, plan our processes and ensure our staff were well looked after and kept informed along the way."

Stacey Keegan, interim chief executive at Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital

Claire Heathfield, also an operating department practitioner, said theatre staff were re-distributed, the hospital took on the trauma service from Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust and 12 anaesthetic machines were transferred over to the county's acute hospitals to meet the anticipated ventilator requirement.

She said staff wellbeing had to be looked after with measures introduced such as free refreshments, an additional day's leave and flexible working patterns.

Chair Frank Collins said it had been "a year like no other" and the Covid-19 outbreak had led to a complete change and complex challenges for the hospital.

He said many staff had volunteered to be based at SaTH, which runs Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Telford's Princess Royal Hospital, while RJAH had taken on emergency and trauma work.

"Hundreds of our staff adopted different working practices during the year," he said.

Stacey Keegan, interim chief executive at Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital

"Whilst the focus is often on the frontline staff, and rightly so, I want to point out that the pandemic has impacted every department and every member of our staff.

"I remember talking with our information team about the pressure they felt under to submit by midnight on every single day timely and accurate data on our Covid affected patients, so that regionally and nationally we could understand the spread of the virus in almost real time."

Stacey Keegan, interim chief executive at RJAH, also reflected on the past year, saying the hospital had seen more than 3,000 patients in fracture clinics and carried out almost 1,000 trauma operations.

She said more than 30,000 Covid jabs had also been delivered by the hospital's vaccination team.

Meanwhile, the orthopaedic hospital near Oswestry had benefited from a new MRI scanner, which Ms Keegan said had allowed the trust to be "at the forefront of scanning capabilities".

And she said staff were now focussing on getting elective surgery back on track after waiting list backlogs for planned procedures had built up to unprecedented levels during the pandemic.

"Looking ahead this year, our focus – as well as still managing the pandemic – has now turned to the restoration of services and being able to treat our patients as quickly as possible," she added.

"Led by our clinical teams, staff are working hard to ensure as many patients as possible are treated, and we offer priority care to those in greatest clinical need.

"It will be a long pathway of recovery which will continue to put pressure on our staff and hospital."

She added: "Our strategic aims – we have to keep improving and keep growing.

"We must think about how we continue to flourish in what is now a difficult time for the NHS."

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