Victor Tapah came to the UK as an asylum seeker from Cameroon in 2012 and finished his nurse training in October.
“For the first six months after training, there’s always someone behind you,” he says. “Then you have to be independent.”
For Victor that independence came in March, when everything changed.
His 46-bed intensive care unit at the Royal Papworth Hospital would normally have up to 36 patients. By April, the beds were full, and the unit had been extended into other wards, with around 50 COVID-19 patients, on top of a number of non-COVID patients needing critical care.
“You had to wear full PPE all shift and you’ve gone from one or two nurses per patient to one nurse for up to three patients. Between the time you start a shift and when you end it, new care guidelines have been published so you never had time to get used to anything.”
Victor was providing medication, performing assessments and operating high-level life-support systems such as the ECMO machine, which replaces the function of the heart and the lungs. When he discovered that one of his patients on an ECMO machine was also a critical care nurse, he asked him how it felt to go from providing care to being the one cared for.
“He said it was another world, that it was unbelievable. I was so emotional. When you see a colleague like that, you go home and cry. You know that a lot of Black nurses have passed away and think ‘it could be me and I haven’t seen my parents in 10 years’. I try not to think about that too much, because it’s a bit too deep.”
He describes how the hospital adapted as the crisis progressed, introducing dedicated teams for things like personal care and communicating with families, taking huge pressure off the critical care nurses.
“It was like a jigsaw coming together. You see senior staff, who usually work in the offices, helping out on the wards. You see everyone in the trust pulling together and it really gives you the motivation to keep going.”
Reflecting on his feelings about this period, he says: “I don’t like to say proud – you can’t be proud when a lot of people have lost their lives. You sit down and say: we couldn’t have done this without teamwork, we have pushed ourselves to the limit. Whatever comes to me, I feel prepared.”
This interview is from UNISON’s Saving the Nation magazine series, in which public sector workers share their stories from the first few months of the pandemic.