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'It hit us like a brick wall': Hospice nurse opens up about working amid 'uncertain' pandemic

Alexandra Thompson
·5-min read
Hospice nurse Thamena Ali admits the coronavirus outbreak is a 'constant worry'. (Supplied: Marie Curie)
Hospice nurse Thamena Ali admits the coronavirus outbreak is a 'constant worry'. (Supplied: Marie Curie)

A hospice nurse has opened up about caring for end-of-life patients amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Thamena Ali, 32, has worked at the Marie Curie hospice in Hampstead, north London, for around two and a half years.

Although used to caring for the terminally ill, the coronavirus outbreak hit Ali “like a brick wall”.

Battling feelings of “anxiety” and “uncertainty”, she moved out of her family home over fears she would unwittingly infect her mother, who has breast cancer.

Ali has held many dying patients’ hands over the years. With the coronavirus putting restrictions on visitor numbers, however, watching someone die without their family present has been the “biggest challenge”.

Read more: Heavy smokers 89% more likely to die with coronavirus

As new coronavirus variants emerge, Ali admits the pandemic is a “constant worry”.

The devoted nurse stresses, however, she “knew what she was signing up for” when she entered the profession, urging others to “be nice” as the outbreak continues to unfold.

Despite wearing personal protective equipment, like a mask and gloves, Ali worried she may unwittingly infect others. She therefore moved out of the family home to live alone in October. (Supplied: Marie Curie)
Despite wearing personal protective equipment, like a mask and gloves, Ali worried she may unwittingly infect others. She therefore moved out of the family home to live alone in October. (Supplied: Marie Curie)

When news of the coronavirus hit the headlines in early 2020, Ali was initially not too concerned.

“We all brushed it off,” she told Yahoo UK. “We were told ‘wash your hands’, but we did that as part of our day-to-day job.”

As case numbers rose, however, the reality of the situation sunk in.

“It hit us like a brick wall,” said Ali. “We all felt very anxious, uncertain.”

The Hampstead hospice has set up a coronavirus ward, where positive patients, those with suspected symptoms and people arriving from outside have to quarantine.

While the staff have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), the team still worry they could unwittingly infect others.

“We go home to loved ones, who may not all be in impeccable health,” said Ali.

Read more: Antibody treatment cuts coronavirus infection risk by 80%

Ali’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2020.

“She had one bout of chemo before lockdown, then that was stopped,” said Ali.

“Home life was very, very stressful.”

As well as the impact of the pandemic, Ali’s mother’s chemotherapy was reportedly halted due to her not “tolerating it well”, with the nurse describing the care as “impeccable”.

Ali’s mother has since had an emergency mastectomy and radiotherapy, which she responded well to.

Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?

Ali tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, a sign of prior infection, in summer 2020.

“In March I wasn’t feeling too well, but didn’t have a cough or high temperature,” she said. “I felt a bit achey.”

Despite likely having some immunity against the coronavirus, the emergence of new variants prompted Ali to move out of the family home to live alone in October.

Speaking of the second wave, Ali said: “I was just pre-empting it coming back.

“It’s very difficult because I don’t see my mum, but she’s in better health and that gives me some ease.”

Read more: Just 21 anaphylaxis cases to first Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine

Ali is due to have the coronavirus vaccine shortly, having initially turned it down while working night shifts.

“I tend to get aches [after a vaccination], and was worried I’d be on nights and not be able to go into work,” she said.

The studies that led to the three coronavirus vaccines being approved in the UK demonstrated the jabs are safe, with the vast majority of side effects being mild and fleeting.

The hospice’s regulations over visitor numbers have varied at different stages of the pandemic.

Amid England’s ongoing lockdown, one relative can come in to say goodbye if a patient is at the end of their life.

“Who do you choose?,” said Ali. “A patient could have five children.”

Pandemic aside, Ali is used to sitting with dying patients.

“We all know what we signed up for,” she said.

“We give that care. We give dying patients the best death – comfortable, pain-free.

“At Christmas a patient was dying and we took turns to sit with them, hold their hand.”

While elderly people are more likely to endure coronavirus complications, Ali stressed young patients have come in with the infection.

“It’s foolish to think it only affects older people,” she said.

“I know family members younger than me who’ve gone into hospital.”

While nearly 6.6 million first doses of the vaccines have been administered in the UK, experts have warned the jabs must not be viewed as a “silver bullet” out of the pandemic, with everyone still having to adhere to the coronavirus restrictions.

Speaking to the public, Ali said: “We’re all fed up and so am I.

“We all have to stick together and understand for us to beat this virus, we have to work alongside each other, be nice to each other, be gentle.”

A Marie Curie spokesperson added: “Marie Curie is the UK’s leading end of life charity, providing care and support for people with a terminal illness, be that motor neurone disease, heart failure, Parkinson’s, dementia or terminal cancer.

“Marie Curie employs more than 2,700 nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals, and with its nine hospices around the UK, is the largest provider of hospice beds outside the NHS.

“The charity has continued to care for people at the end of their life during the pandemic, with and without COVID-19, in people’s own homes and its nine hospices.”

Watch: What is long COVID?