This week I received the news I've been waiting for since Christmas - that shielding is relaxing again and I can finally go back to work! As a nurse I've had a real mix of emotions throughout the last year, predominantly spent at home, but the overriding feeling has been guilt. Guilt that my husband has had to work full time then spend hours queuing to buy our family's food each week. Guilty I haven't been able to support colleagues and patients. Guilt that while so many healthcare staff have had to sacrifice so much, I've been safely tucked up at home.
A few months ago my local paper featured me in an article about nurses' pay. If you've seen my social media or read my letters to Boris you'll know it's something I feel very strongly about. I was surprised by how hateful some of the article's comments were towards nurses, stating that we are 'greedy', 'lazy' and that we 'do a pauper's job' so should 'know our place'. I've since discussed these comments on BBC Essex radio where the DJ was appalled. I've now brushed them off as generalised opinions, made through utter ignorance, by cowardly keyboard warriors who would have no such confidence in reality. But when a comment is a direct personal attack it isn't so easy to forget. A friend of mine who is a successful author said to me recently that she thinks people forget there is an actual human on the other end of their virulent remarks. The article mentioned that the reason I've had to shield is because of a rare lung disease, Chronic Eosinophilic Pneumonia, which is treated with immunosuppressants. It hasn't been a choice of mine to duck out of nursing to have an easy year in the garden. I am at a very real risk of serious complications and I owe it to my family to respond sensibly to Covid. So the comment 'She didn't even work in lockdown' cut deep. It didn't matter to this reader that I've given 24 years of my life so far to nursing, it mattered that I'd had the audacity to fight for my colleagues while I was seemingly swanning around carefree, in her words 'seeking attenshun'.
This made me furious. Firstly, if I'm unable to work, why shouldn't I do what I can to support my colleagues and fight for fair pay and conditions? The original post that caught my local paper's eye was a photo of me taken by my son outside my local MPs office (a photo another hater claimed was fake!). I wanted to raise awareness that, rather than support local healthcare staff, this MP had blocked all contact from nursing groups asking for his help with the #NHS15 campaign. The post garnered so much interest that it had 91,506 positive interactions on Facebook alone. For the support of these people I am so very grateful but the hate from a handful cast a shadow at the time.
Secondly, the reason I was unable to work was actually because of my career. Right at the start of the pandemic when healthcare workers started suffering from Covid themselves a friend of mine said, 'If they're becoming unwell with this, how many healthcare workers have contracted other illnesses in the past?'. His comment hit me like a physical force, because I am one of them. Eight years ago, I was exposed to an unknown substance at work that triggered a response in my body that has lead to lifelong health problems. I won't go into detail about my condition, as I have previously done, but I now have to take long-term steroid medication in both inhaler and tablet form just to function daily. The exhaustion and chest symptoms that overtake me in a flare-up are indescribable and blood tests, X-Rays, bone density scans and CT scans are regular events. However, I've learned to deal with all of this and it really doesn't affect me too badly now I know how to listen to my body. I rarely talk about it in real life as it's just become part of me and that's OK. But when someone accuses me of not pulling my weight during a pandemic, that is not OK.
And there will be plenty of nurses in a similar situation to me. And they are who I am really writing this blog for. Don't feel guilty that you've had to take a year out of your many years of service to stay well enough for more. Don't let other people's opinions weigh you down. Don't feel guilty if having time out has made you realise that nursing isn't for you anymore. The last year has demonstrated only too well how relentlessly tough it is and maybe you've decided you've given all you can. Your colleagues will understand that you've had to make your own health a priority for once. And if you do go back to work, you may just be the person they need to hand the baton to.