Thursday 7 May 2020

Somewhere under the rainbow

Here in the UK we are now in our seventh week of lockdown. I have watched the progress of the current coronavirus pandemic with the slightly detached view of a retired scientist. Yes, mistakes have been made and it is easy for me to say so, as I sit here in the semi-isolation of rural Cheshire, 200 miles from London. Whatever we might think, we have to live and cope with the situation as it stands. Hindsight is wonderful, but the decisions, made at the time in general, seemed to be the most appropriate for the circumstances and were made to protect our NHS. Initially husband and I watched the daily press briefing from Downing Street, but after a time it started to feel like a summons to the headmaster's office. The announcements were at times grim and every day the journalists, who are not scientists, seemed to ask the same questions.  Not surprisingly the answers were pretty much the same. What has surprised me has been the patience with which the politicians and scientists have answered these questions on a daily basis.

As someone who started their working life in the NHS I cannot help but wonder what it would have been like had there been a pandemic when I was working in hospital pharmacy. It was forty years ago and I was a new qualified pharmacist in my early twenties. I know that a lot has changed in that time. Then we did not have mobile phones, computers or the internet and people did not travel anything like as much as they do today. So maybe a virus would not have spread as fast as coronavirus has. The intensive care unit (ITU), at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford where I worked, probably had no more than than ten beds. Everything in the unit was far less automated than today and what machines there were, were fairly basic. Occasionally I would visit ITU to check their drugs and I have to say that I found it intimidating.  Medicines would have been important, but of the drugs regularly used today, only a handful would have been available forty years ago. Yes, nearly all of the drugs in common use today had not been discovered or developed then. It would have been very much survival of the fittest. Never the less we thought that we were at the cutting edge. The practice of medicine had moved on in leaps and bounds since the NHS had been set up in 1948. I enjoyed the years that I spent working in hospital pharmacy. The atmosphere in the hospitals that I worked in was aways good. You felt that you were part of a team, although sometimes there appeared to be more than one team. And you just would not be working there if you were not prepared for hard work and some sacrifices. At times it was an eye opener as I experienced and saw things that were disturbing and upsetting. Events that doctors and nurses were trained for, but which pharmacists of my generation were not. But I have to say that it was also very rewarding.

Part of me would still like to be working. It is what I was trained to do. Pharmacists who had retired in the last three years were asked to return to work in preparation for coronavirus arriving here. It is eight years since I retired, which counts me out and it is not as if I had not worked through some difficult times. In the Winter of Discontent I was working at St George's Hospital, Hyde Park Corner - now the Lanesborough Hotel. Without going into detail I can tell you that it was grim. During the swine flu epidemic of 2009/10 I was working in retail pharmacy. There was no PPE in those days. Admittedly swine flu was not as virulent as coronavirus. You just had to hope that you did not get it.

Here in the UK, thanks to the planning of the politicians, scientists and doctors, our NHS has not been overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic in the way that hospitals in some countries have been. There has always been spare capacity. Every patient has had a bed and a ventilator, if needed. It may no longer be the envy of the world, as it once was, but it is doing a pretty good job right now.