May 20, 2020

‘I Have Held the Hands of Patients as They Died’

“These are as far from normal times as I have ever experienced in 40 years working for the National Health Service!” says Moira Surridge, a Seventh-day Adventist nurse whose career in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) has spanned four decades and eleven different hospitals.

Much of that time Surridge has spent working in intensive care units (ICUs), though more recently she has taken on an educational role, teaching and training on sepsis at the hospital where she currently works. With the COVID-19 crisis, however, she made the choice to return to ICU and work with critically ill patients.

She says, “I found myself facing new challenges I never believed possible in my lifetime.” This is her story.

In the Thick of It

Social distancing in the United Kingdom started on March 23, 2020, and for most of us, that was the end of life as we knew it. For me, that moment came on March 24 at 7:30 a.m. when I started my first shift back in ICU. It was with very mixed emotions I returned to the unit I had previously worked in for ten years, but had left in 2007.

After a break of nearly three years in ICU, I was back in the thick of it.

Under normal circumstances, nurses care for one ventilated patient at a time. Within days I was looking after three ventilated patients. These were as far from normal times as I have ever experienced in 40 years working for the NHS.

To begin with, I found wearing the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) constricting, claustrophobic, hot, and oppressive. I knew beyond any doubt that I was entering a COVID-19 hot spot. Was I ready for that? How was I going to tell my family, my mom and dad, that I had offered to work in the thick of this nightmare?

Be under no illusion: COVID-19 is a nightmare, an invisible enemy. It brings devastation to people’s lives; it is not fussy about who it attacks, and it kills quickly and certainly. The culmination of my first four weeks was on Friday, April 17, when one of our nurses, along with two other patients, passed away. The sadness for all of us was raw, palpable, and unforgettable. Many of us shed tears that day.

Harrowing Days

Over the weeks, we have sadly lost many patients to COVID-19, marking many harrowing days. However, no one has died alone, despite the fact that family members often could not be present, and the unit has been busier than ever before. I have held the hands of two patients as they died, speaking of their loved ones and happier times. Absolutely heart-wrenching and unforgettable moments, these events shape the nurses we are all proud to be.

Why am I now sharing this after weeks of exhaustion, tears, and nights when all I dream about are the patients I have looked after all day and wish I could forget?

It is because I have never felt so uplifted by moments of pure kindness and professionalism that others have shown around me.

We have had nurses from all over our Hospital Trust sent to work supporting us in ICU. I can only imagine the terror they must have felt, being catapulted into such an utterly alien environment. These nurses have inspired me, supported me, and humbled me, and I thank them each and every one. We could never have managed without their support.

The Strength to Continue

On those difficult shifts, when it all seemed too much to bear, kind and supportive words from my colleagues, with smiles and gestures of understanding, have given me the strength to go on.

My wonderful family, without whom I would never have gotten through shift after shift, have sent supportive texts, cards, flowers, and goody-bags. At every homecoming, I have been greeted with freshly baked goodies, cups of tea, and acceptance that all I want to do is have a shower and go to bed.

Writing this, and especially sharing this video, has brought back sad moments and terrifying feelings. Still, most of all, I now know how precious are kind words, the best colleagues, family, and friends, and most important, how precious life is. Never forget the wonderful gift of life that God has given us, and the hope we all have in a future with Him.

The original version of this story was printed in the British Union Conference Messenger edition for May 8, 2020. A video version of Surridge’s story was produced by the Trans-European Division Communication Department.