Thoughts of a Redundant Nurse in the Middle of a Pandemic

May 5, 2020

Just re-reading this paradoxical title makes me feel very conflicted.

Suddenly realising that your current specialist travel health nursing skills are irrelevant in the middle of a pandemic kind of kicks you while you’re down a bit. Along with the extra stab of inadequacy when you get furloughed because your current clinic-nursing skills just aren’t necessary anymore.

All kinds of things have happened to me psychologically in the last few weeks which I think I just need to get down on paper.

First, the shock of the pandemic news itself and being torn relatively suddenly from a job I love. Closely followed by survival instinct kicking in and the inevitable lioness-like compulsion to secure my family, my income, and home.

Next, the rising pressure of an internal dialogue that goes something like this: ‘I’m a nurse – an ex-emergency nurse at that – I totally should be getting involved in this. How can I stay at home when I’ve got specialist skills that will be in VERY short supply right now?’.

Then the PULL, every day, every time I am reminded of it in the news: ‘I should be there, I want to be there, I need to be there….’

I am a nurse at home, not going to work anymore, with all the time in the world to read about and watch other nurses ‘fighting the fight’ and being commended as the rightful heroes that they are.

And also watching them die.

I have done the first part of the ‘honorable thing’ and conscripted myself onto the nurse bank. But I’ve not put my money where my mouth is and chosen to do a shift yet.

I think a lot about the psychological and sociological differences between the ‘already-there-rightfully-scared-to-be-there’ nurse and the ‘lunatic-salmon-like-choose-to-be-there’ nurse.

The already-there nurse is doing the job they already do. They are seasoned in what they do, and the territory is familiar. Their intra-work support networks (other incredible nursey friends fighting the fight alongside them) are well established. These things are some of the few ‘positives’ (said very loosely for want of a better term) of being already there. And they are utterly amazing for ploughing on regardless of the risk.

The choose-to-be-suddenly-there nurse is in unfamiliar territory, may not have practiced for a good while, and will not have familiar shoulders to cry on if needed. And when they get home after a shift, instead of praise and support in favour of what they do, their family might question them on why they have made the ‘choice’ to take such a risk.  And they will almost certainly question themselves as soon as they see their first COVID-19 death in the flesh.

Jade and Max

The concept of choice in this situation is awkward. In a way I wish someone would just violate my free-will and order me to go in and do it. Then it’s not my own awful decision if I happen to die or to infect others in my family. Conscription would take away quite a few difficult dilemmas for me over whether to increase the risk to mine and my family’s life, or simply stay put and enjoy the sunshine, relieved about the choice I made to leave the acute setting nearly a decade ago.

I mean, who decides to swim against the tide straight into the epicenter of a murderous indiscriminate infectious disease that we have very little knowledge about? Who?

Well, me and tens of thousands of others who signed up to the NHS nurse bank the moment they heard the news. For some, they may not have procrastinated like me and just gone for it. Absolutely good for them and I commend that bravery and unwavering instinct to just do it.

But I do wonder how many have had (or are having) the same inner conflicts as me. I have a husband and two small kids at home. The alternating polarised drives to protect them from absolutely anything, coupled with the drive to go to help a struggling health care system -yet ultimately put the family at risk- is exhausting and contradictory.

I’m signed up, I got that far, but still haven’t decided whether to do a shift yet. I can’t yet reconcile knowing I could risk bringing the virus into my family home or depriving the kids of their mother so early in life just because I made a choice that I didn’t necessarily have to make. Or even just depriving them of this valuable rare time together as a family. Sounds dramatic doesn’t it? But it kind of is. Nurses HAVE died. They HAVE left kids behind. What’s the honourable thing to do here? (I ask myself 50 times daily). I am trying to make an impossible decision in the face of the unknown. I simply do not have enough information to make this call. And you know those simplistic ‘pros and cons’ lists on a bit of A4 paper? Here it goes:

‘Dive right in’: Best case scenario: I might improve a few people’s lives and ease the pressure on a struggling health care system. If I contract the virus, I might not die. I might have really mild symptoms. If my family catch it, they may not suffer at all or even know about it, we may all develop life-long immunity from the antibodies. I will be forced to dust off my bike and get some exercise on the way to work. I might make some more friends and a bit of cash to make up the gaping deficit in my salary.

‘Dive right in’: Worst case scenario: I might be a huge burden to the NHS with my out of date skills and inadequacy. My whole family might get severely ill and take up yet more precious resources. I might die. I might leave my kids motherless and family grieving. I might be responsible for my children dying.

Middle ground: I might fall off my bike on the way to work like an idiot and end up being a minors patient in A and E instead of staff…

I know none of my family want me to go back into the NHS, let alone A and E which is my ‘area’ (from 10 years ago). I know I will be judged negatively if I take this risk- and maybe if I don’t? I know I will judge myself negatively whatever I do. My mind just works like that unfortunately.

So, for now I am waiting for mitigating factors: Waiting for assurances about PPE, waiting for frontline testing, waiting for someone to tell me it’s OK- we have enough nurses now, waiting for something to somehow take this decision out of my hands, waiting for these painful contraction-like urges to get in the hospital to subside.

Unfortunately, none of things seem to be happening for me right now.

I cannot say how much admiration I have for every single healthcare worker going into work right now. Every last one of them will have had their own difficult contradictory decisions to make about going into work, in direct opposition to the mainstream, sorry, the WORLD, telling them repeatedly to ‘stay at home’. I imagine most of them will close their eyes and take a deep breath at some point before they enter that lions den regardless of how they ended up there. Many families will be terrified for them and many families will be extremely proud of them, which too, might alternate rapidly between the extremes of emotional experience.

Ultimately, the only thing I can be truly certain of right now, is that everyone in one way or another is dealing with the unknown and I don’t see how anyone can make any firm decisions in this climate. I suppose if you can’t make a decision, you don’t have all the information required to make it yet. Therefore, facts (that are not even out there yet) can’t help me here.

So, given that no-one truly knows what they have signed up for, I guess this seems to be one of those scenarios requiring steely optimism, unwavering bravery, the ability to ‘get one’s head down’, and most of all, the ability to shut out the news. Maybe the ‘choose-to-be-theres’ and ‘already-theres’ aren’t so different after all. 

Are blinkers in as short supply as face masks? Because I think I need to buy some. 

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  1. Thank you for sharing this, I retired from nursing four years ago and have had similar internal struggles after receiving emails from the NMC asking me to go back on the register. Rationally, I know that I would be a liability after a long break and, at 60 and with a hisband at high risk, I feel that the price would be too high. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty, or fearing that there will be those who judge me for not doing my bit.

    I wholeheartedly echo your admiration for those working on the front line.

    • Hi Judith
      Many thanks for taking time to read and comment. Since this blog went onto social media it’s clear we are not alone in our nurse-guilt from the comments. But you are doing absolutely the right thing by yourself and your husband. I’ve come round to thinking now that we are judged which ever way we do things. So we might as well not worry about it really. Thanks again for the lovely comment. Stay safe now.

    • I’m in a similar position, although I don’t have small children, having taken an early retirement from 15 years in Travel Health, I have volunteered, despite all my doubts, as a Healthcare Worker. My acute experience having been 30 years ago. I am an eternal optimist being in my 60s with my husband a similar age But I do fear bringing the virus home and tying up the NHS looking after us both.

      Things are moving very slowly and although I have been accepted, I am still going through the screening process. However I feel quite strongly that children whenever possible should be brought up by their parents and I grieve when I see NHS staff and care workers dying through their commitment to their patients

      • Hi Mary
        Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and sharing your own thoughts. Well done with all you are doing in this fight.
        I think you are right and this whole situation has really made me re-think my priorities, as have other people I imagine.
        It’s so sad that someone should have to face so many risks just to go to work, I agree. But it is what it is. And well done for keeping so positive 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for this Alys – I really know what you mean re conscription! All very though-provoking and it is brave of you to share all this!

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Jane. I’m glad you got something from it and I hope you are doing OK in these turbulent times 🙂

  3. Thanks so much Alys! It really helps to know the way I’m feeling is normal. Yes I’ve signed up but the price
    could be high! So….

    • Hi Kimmy
      I’m glad this article helped to validate your own feelings. Thanks for taking the time to comment and I hope you are doing OK.


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