NHS critical care nurse Anthea Allen was used to working on the front line. Yet nothing in her 26-year career could have prepared her for Covid. She tells us her story…
As critical care nurse Anthea Allen walked into work, she felt a sense of dread building in the pit of her stomach.
The once-bustling hospital was eerily quiet, and the relaxed banter between staff had been replaced by a terse silence.
Most departments were closed, and there was a makeshift intensive care unit set up in one of the wards to treat Covid patients who were critically ill.
It was March 2020 – the start of the global coronavirus pandemic – and, for the first time, Anthea could see just how serious the situation was.
“It was like stepping onto a film set. I’d never seen anything like it, with all my colleagues dressed in PPE,” says Anthea, 60, who lives with her partner Elisabeth, in Balham, South London, and their children Claudia, 23, and Peter, 16.
When the hospital was stretched to the limit, Claudia came in during her university holidays to help answer the phones.
“Usually in critical care, the staff are very calm in a crisis, but I could see from their faces they were shocked.
“There were patients everywhere struggling to breathe, or attached to a complex network of wires and tubes.
“As I stepped onto the ward, a cold chill went through my body. I knew it was going to be bad.”
The ward was full and during the morning, two men succumbed to the virus. Covid patients would arrive with symptoms similar to flu, then develop breathing difficulties.
Their lungs and heart couldn’t cope with the strain. Many had heart attacks.
Anthea prides herself on compassionate end-of-life care but says she couldn’t give her patients the dignified death they deserved.
“Usually families stay with their dying relatives,” she says.
“They’ll hold their hand, talk to them, lie next to them or brush their hair. But during the pandemic that came to an abrupt end.
“The desperately sad reality was that patients died without their loved ones there to hold their hand or kiss their face.”
She remembers one Covid patient in particular, a woman in her late 40s.
“A couple of weeks before, she had been at a conference in America. She thought she had a cold but became unwell on the flight home. Now she was dying,” says Anthea.
“‘Mummy, don’t die.’ I’ll never forget what her children said as I placed an iPad near her face so she could say goodbye. It was a terrible situation.”
Anthea has worked as a critical care nurse for 26 years.
But despite dealing with life and death situations every day, she is visibly nervous during our interview over Zoom.
After all, she isn’t used to the spotlight – she normally spends her days in scrubs, looking after the sick.
Yet during the pandemic, she became something of a celebrity.
Working at St George’s Hospital in London, Anthea saw the devastation of the pandemic first hand.
One night, while watching Matt Hancock speaking on TV about the country needing more ventilators, she realised there was a crucial thing nobody was talking about – critical care nurses.
“Matt Hancock was talking about getting Dyson and Rolls-Royce to make ventilators and I thought: ‘This is crazy, you can have as many ventilators as you want but you need critical care nurses as they’re the ones who know how to operate them’,” she explains.
At work the next day, she could see the nurses were already at the end of their tether.
Some had been drafted in from other departments such as the physiotherapy or dementia wards.
Many had never seen someone die before.
Others were junior nurses fresh from training, many were thousands of miles away from their families. For some, it nearly broke them.
“I just wanted to help,” says Anthea, who was inspired by a brief moment of levity to take action.
“I had seen a nurse stuff a doughnut in her mouth while on a quick break, sugar all down her top, jam on her nose.
“She was laughing. It was a moment of normality that took place in an otherwise extraordinary situation.”
So Anthea emailed a handful of people, asking them to make cakes and biscuits to cheer up the staff.
“When I got home, I couldn’t get into my house because the hall was full of donations.”
The next day, Anthea took four carloads of cakes and biscuits to the hospital. But it didn’t stop there – friends appealed far and wide, and soon there were donations of staff meals and even a coffee machine.
They had name badges printed for the staff, too, so colleagues knew who was who while they were wearing PPE.
About a week after her first email, Anthea wrote another message to thank everyone who’d donated, and tell people about what was happening at the hospital.
But such was her gift for storytelling, it grew into a weekly newsletter with thousands of subscribers.
“Every time I sent an email, there was a spike in donations, so I just kept going.
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“Once or twice I was too busy to send it and I was deluged with emails asking where the latest newsletter was.”
The newsletter continued from March 2020 to July 2021, when Anthea finally stopped writing.
In the end, she helped raise more than £350,000 for critical care workers via a not-for-profit organisation called Critical NHS.
“It’s incredible,” says Anthea.
“Now my colleagues tease me. If something happens at work they all say: ‘Careful, or Anthea will write this down’,” she laughs.
Anthea started her career as a critical care nurse in 1996.
Over the years, many patients have stuck in her memory – including sisters who were in a suicide pact, gang members who had been subject to brutal retaliation from rivals, and people who have been involved in terrible accidents.
But while Anthea thought she’d seen it all, she says nothing could have prepared her for the pandemic.
“I remember one man who died – a junior nurse and I held his hands. We spoke to him and I tucked a family photo into his hand.
“There were no curtains around his bed, no family with him. The junior nurse had tears running down her face. ‘This is not how it is supposed to be,’ she said.”
But there were some who survived against all odds.
“We had a man who I got to know very well, one who we never thought would survive.
“The relief was huge when he tested negative and we were able to arrange a surprise visit from his wife.
“The other day, he came up to see us. One of the nurses hadn’t seen him since she’d cared for him, and she was completely overwhelmed. She saw he was healed.”
What got Anthea through were the brief moments of camaraderie and laughter among the staff – like the time the doctors and nurses wrote the names of pop stars on their name badges instead of their own.
“I didn’t recognise Beyonce at all – a large male cardiac ICU nurse,” Anthea recalls.
And at times the patients made her chuckle, too.
“I remember there was an elderly lady who had Covid and was recovering well.
“She liked to have about six or seven cups of tea a day but the staff didn’t have time to make her one, so I went over and asked if she’d like a cuppa.
“She said: ‘No darling, it’s fine. The astronaut brought me one earlier.’
She wasn’t confused – there were people helping from different departments, as well as the army, so she actually thought that there were astronauts too.
“One thing I have learned by working as a critical care nurse – you never know what to expect.”
Life, Death and Biscuits by Anthea Allen (£14.99, HarperCollins) is out now.