Stylist’s Billie Bhatia joins the public by clapping to the NHS who saved not just everyone else’s lives but her own.
There is an arrogance that comes with youth. It’s a feeling that you are invincible. Many of us feel this now with coronavirus; that because we are young, we are untouchable. I was part of this school of thought, too. I once believed my body could handle all the recklessness I made it endure because nothing ever happened to people in their 20s.
Within a working week, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to knock out multiple group dinners, a couple of industry parties and a spontaneous 3am-er on a Thursday. Layer into that my many trips abroad, lack of a sensible diet, sleep deprivation and minimal exercise. While I was having the time of my life, my family and friends were correctly worried about my wellbeing. Naturally, I told them all to stop being such bores and that I was totally fine. After all, I was 28 and invincible.
Until Christmas came and, for the very first time that year, I slowed down. By Boxing Day, I had a fever and a bad cough, which two doctors dismissed as simply the rumblings of a chest infection. Five days later, I was being carted off in an ambulance to hospital with full-blown pneumonia and oxygen levels so low my organs were teetering on the edge of shutting down completely. (For context: normal oxygen saturation levels are between 97%-100%, and my persistent attempts at invincibility had mine at a precarious 38%.)
Be under no illusion, I’ve had a couple of run-ins with A&E in my life. I fractured my left ankle bashing into a squash wall; I knocked myself unconscious running backwards into a netball post; and my body reacts rather dramatically to any kind of insect bite. But I had never done hard time, and because of that, I had never fully comprehended my good fortune of having the NHS and its amazing staff at my fingertips by birthright.
After two days in and out of consciousness, things were going from bad to worse. Doctors came to see me, took notes, looked worried and left again. I couldn’t tell you anything about them – not their names or what they looked like. (Except for the hot one who slit both my wrists open… but we’ll get to that.) That isn’t to say they weren’t great at their jobs or to deny their knowledge and application of medicine, just that our interactions were fleeting and intermittent. However, I can tell you about Maddie, Claire, Sarah, Ubi and Grace – some of the incredible nurses who collectively saved my life.
I first met Maddie when things were going seriously south. Her job was to determine which patients needed to move from high dependency into the intensive care unit (ICU), and I was her mark. Calmly, kindly and with the sort of affection usually bestowed on someone you’ve known much longer than a few hours, she explained that my lungs were so full of infection that my body had stopped accepting oxygen, and that if this continued for much longer I would have to be put in a coma and on a ventilator. (Not an easy conversation to have with a patient who lends herself to dramatics.) Maddie held my hand and told me I would get better, and because it came from her, I believed it entirely.
An hour later, I was in a glass box in the ICU with what felt like an industrial-powered hair dryer blowing oxygen up my nose, a hot doctor slicing through my wrists to add more tubes, and a less hot doctor shoving in a catheter (I wish this ordeal on no one). After the doctors were done, Claire, the senior ICU nurse, came to my rescue – she sealed up my wounds, lay another blanket over me, explained that the next few hours were critical to me either making it or not, and subsequently wiped away my tears.
For someone who loves to be the centre of the attention, the best thing about the ICU was having a dedicated nurse sat at the end of my bed, monitoring my every move. They were the willing audience and I was the star of the show. And Ubi from Kerala was more than my audience, she was my guardian angel. For that first touch-and-go night, I wasn’t even allowed to drink water – a strict oxygen-only diet. I silently pleaded with Ubi for just one drop and she sat next to me, holding the straw to my mouth and breaking the rules just to make me feel a little more human. Ubi even called my parents every hour, on the hour, to deliver them my stats and reassure them that the process was working.
The next morning, I met Sarah. Now Sarah had a tall task: she had to get me showered. I will spare you the gory details, but I will forever be grateful to her for treating me with immense care and kindness in my most vulnerable state.
Three days later, and my tenure in the ICU was up. I was getting better. I was no longer dependent on 100% oxygen but had made it down to 60% (insert celebration emoji here), which meant I had to be moved to the respiratory ward and give up my first-class cabin for a more worthy flyer. I wasn’t happy about it. Unable to really move or talk, I still managed to muster my inner brat and begged Sarah and Claire to let me stay in the ICU, “Don’t leave me with the others, I’m not made for general population!” Suppressing laughter, they reassured me that they would still come and check on me.
The first night on the ward (read: gen-pop) was awful. With no guardian angels and no machinery to tell me what was going on, I had no indicator that the oxygen being pumped into my body was working. I rang the emergency bell over 20 times to ask Grace – the ward’s matron – to check my stats. Naturally, she did this without question and each time told me how great I was doing. My middle-child-ness was soothed.
The next morning, a miracle happened: Sarah was back by my bedside. “You’re here! Can you take me back to the ICU now?” Still laughing at me, she replied, “No, but a side room became available and I’m moving you there.” I squealed. “OMG, a private room?!” “Sure, if you want to call it that,” she smiled.
The next seven days in my private room went by unbearably slowly (there was no wifi, no phone service, no TV and no ward camaraderie to entertain me) but every now and again I would get a surprise visitor in the form of Maddie, Claire, Sarah, Ubi or Grace. Each one greeting me with the biggest, brightest smiles. These weren’t just nurses who had extended their duty of care to such extremes that they came to see me even when I was no longer their patient (and at the end of an already exceptionally long shift) – these were women who had saved my life.
As nationwide we clapped for the NHS and their unwavering commitment to our wellbeing in the fight against coronavirus, I was reminded of my nurse guardian angels, the doctors and all the caregivers who made me better. I was reminded of their dedication, their resolute attitude to helping everybody and their utterly inspiring selflessness. Thank you, NHS, for always being there for me – and for all of us.
Images: Sarah Brick