While coronavirus forced the country in lockdown last March, everything seemed to change – except my job as a paramedic. As others were urged to stay at home, I was still waking up, putting on my uniform, heading to work and doing the important job of attending to sick or injured people.
In the beginning, I was scared. I saw up close the impact Covid-19 was having on every patient’s life, the virus not just affecting those who had it. I recall attending an elderly man that cried as he told me his daily walks were very important to him – since lockdown meant he wasn’t using his muscles as much, his mobility had deteriorated and he was having recurring falls.
As the number of Covid-19 cases rose, many healthcare services were disrupted or stopped, including home visits from mental health teams and GPs. Often, paramedics like me would be the only contact patients would have with another person for weeks. As lockdown went on, there was a definite increase in mental health calls, and I began attending more patients with mental health concerns – panic and anxiety attacks being particularly common.
On these mental health calls, I was struck by the variety of people I came across each day. I realised that the challenges brought on by the pandemic were affecting everyone to varying degrees, no matter how resilient they were before.
As time goes on, I’ve been inspired by the way people have adapted and found the things that give them strength.
Even when I attended people that called with a physical condition, we would discover they were often also struggling with a mental health one too. As people’s routines were disrupted, and their usual support system or coping mechanisms were restricted, their behaviours changed. I remember a diabetic patient who was having physical complications because the lack of structure had caused him to stop managing his sugar intake and insulin levels properly.
As time goes on, however, I’ve been inspired by the way people have adapted and found the things that give them strength. When we visited people’s homes now and heard about their new lockdown routines they created that help them manage their wellbeing I realised I also had to be creative, and found great solace in sewing, painting and cooking.
Paramedic training is diverse, but teaching in mental health was not exhaustive. At the beginning of my career, I recognised that I needed to feel more equipped to support patients with mental health concerns and joined SHOUT 85258 as a way to support others and provide emotional and mental health support. I believe it’s made me a better healthcare professional, friend and person.
During the first lockdown, my family would call me daily to check if I was safe and I would smile and say yes without thinking, because I didn’t want them to worry. But as work grew more challenging, I realised I was forgetting to check on myself – something I suspect is common amongst frontline workers. It took me a while to notice that on my days off I found it hard to get out of bed, I had stopped exercising, was eating mostly takeaways rather than making an effort to cook, and had even reduced contact with friends. I was looking after others, but lacked the energy to look after myself.
For other frontline workers who are struggling, I urge you to reach out for help. Sharing how you’re feeling during this unprecedented time can really make a difference. It did to me.
I reached out for support from my university’s services and started to talk to a counsellor once a week. She was kind and understanding, never judging my thoughts or feelings, and she reminded me of the incredible things I had achieved each week and the important work I was doing for my patients every shift. She didn’t pressure me to do anything, she simply reminded me of my worth. And slowly, I started doing things I enjoyed for myself again: going for a walk, listening to music, reading a good book, writing down my thoughts, cooking a nice meal, tidying the house, calling a friend. It took me reaching out for help and sharing my feelings with someone else to recognise these were all things I deserved and I was worthy of looking after myself.
When I check in on my colleagues, it’s clear how the pressure they are under is affecting their wellbeing and I always remind them of the support that’s out there, such as Our Frontline, which offers a 24/7 mental health support line for key workers in particular.
For other frontline workers who are struggling, I urge you to reach out for help. Even if you think it won’t make a difference to your reality and situation, sharing how you’re feeling during this unprecedented and life-changing time can really make a difference. It did to me, and I feel stronger now to continue in this battle against Covid-19.
Last year was probably the worst time for me to gain more responsibility at work, to have new skills and use them unsupervised. But it also became the year I learned I can endure more than I thought I ever could.
Sara Almeida is a paramedic with the East of England Ambulance Service Trust and SHOUT85258 volunteer.Key workers can access free, round the clock, one to one mental health support provided by Samaritans, Shout85258, Hospice UK and Mind through Our Frontline.