Life as a hospital boss during coronavirus

In the past few months, we have heard countless heartbreaking stories from hospitals: the long hours doctors and nurses spend in cumbersome PPE, the tragedy of patients dying from Covid-19 without a relative by their side, and staff fears that they could be next. As chief executive of Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn, it is my job to look out for the people who are living these scenes every day.

A relatively small hospital, we have had more than 335 Covid-19 patients, just over 100 deaths, and 159 patients discharged. At the time of writing, we have eight ventilated patients in our coronavirus intensive care unit (ICU) and three on continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. I have to keep people safe – a responsibility that carries even more weight during the coronavirus pandemic.

That was no more difficult than a few weeks ago, when a beloved member of staff, Chrissie, died after testing positive for coronavirus. Nothing in my 35-year NHS career or 53 years of life could have prepared me. Chrissie was a healthcare assistant in the investigation and treatment unit and a pillar of the community, who worked here for almost 30 years. She would walk around the corridors asking people if they were OK, gaining her the reputation of the “Mum of the unit”.

The Union Jack that flies over the hospital – which was opened by the Queen in honour of her mother – has been at half-mast since Chrissie’s death. She is sorely missed.

I have spent time with grieving staff, and spoken to Chrissie’s family, including her husband and children. Patients have also written to me with condolences. We plan to name a new unit after her and will have a memory bench. At her funeral, the hearse and coffin will drive around the hospital estate as staff throw roses on the road. Chrissie would have wanted this.

My colleagues are terrified they could die. The day after Chrissie died, our PPE usage nearly doubled. Now, several more staff in her unit are symptomatic and have tested positive. We have other employees who are critically ill, including a nurse from India, who has been transferred to Royal Papworth Hospital for more intensive treatment. Her husband and one-year-old await news at home; though there are signs of improvement which is such welcome news. This week, two more staff members have been admitted to the Covid-19 intensive care unit. 

When you’re a small team, these stories have a profound effect. King’s Lynn is a tight-knit area, and staff know one another and their patients, through family, friends, school and other local connections. All deaths from Covid-19 have deeply affected the hospital.

There’s a story behind every statistic. This week, I comforted a healthcare assistant who was in tears, because three days after telling a family their daughter had died, she had to ring them back to say her husband was dead, too.

We have a ‘wobble room’, where staff can express emotion. I visit the room and cry alongside them, showing them how dreadfully tired I am. We’re living the same trauma. There is also a wall where people can write how they’re feeling, and a comforting supply of food, drinks, and national applause.

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