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Care worker Wren, who works in a home for residents with learning disabilities, tells the story none of the ‘mainstream’ wants to cover. It is powerful, moving and deserves to be read in full and shared widely.
Shifting one of the heavy boxes up the stairs, I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket. Someone was calling me, but it could wait a few more minutes whilst I rearranged some of our still-packed belongings.
It was November and my partner and I were finally moving our stuff into our newly purchased home after months and months of jumping through legal hoops. We’d been through the whole process during the Covid pandemic, the timing couldn’t have been worse for us, but, in spite of everything going on in the world around us, we had found the perfect house and we didn’t want to let it slip through our fingers I’d been working full tilt since March, since we had locked down our service and a good chunk of our small care team who had been told to shield for their own protection.
Picking up the slack and the extra hours to ensure the people I support still had the quality of life we pride ourselves on giving them, it had been an exhausting eight months, but there I was, with two weeks off and moving our things into our very first home. Despite the months of ridiculous hours, very stringent changes at work to ensure safety, and being emotionally and physically exhausted, I was smiling. Stuff was finally coming together.
In the past eight months we’d had so many issues. Cleaning regimes were upped to ensure that we didn’t bring the virus into the home. My hands were, and still are, chapped from constantly washing them and using cleaning products several times a day. People randomly got called by the track and trace system, so we had to cover shifts at the drop of a hat. The people we support had vital leisure activities cut, so we had to find ways to fill the gaps.
Public transport services were reduced, so staff were spending more to ensure that they got to work on time. We had blisters on the backs of our ears from the masks chafing all the time. The list was endless.
I hadn’t had a week off since March when I’d been on a Buddhist retreat weekend in the lakes which had been cut short by the pandemic, so you can imagine how excited I was about having two weeks off to move in. Two whole weeks! I knew it wasn’t going to be a relaxing time, they say moving home is one of the most stressful things you can do, but I was still buzzing. It had been a busy few days for us, we had all the boxes in the new place, had cleaned the old one ready for it to be handed back to the landlord, and we were in the process of sorting out the boxes ready to unpack and arrange. I was looking forward to another week of our home starting to look just like that: our home.
But (remember the phone I mentioned at the beginning?) then I took my phone out of my pocket. Missed call: work.
Instantly, I knew something was wrong. My boss, as a rule, will not call someone when they are on annual leave. She’s a very firm believer that we work hard, and that our time off shouldn’t be ruined by work calls. My stomach sank and I a rush of adrenaline made my heart flutter. I literally started shaking because I knew exactly what was coming.
Covid. It had to be.
So, hand still shaking, I called her back. I’ll give you a short rundown of the conversation
now and I’ll call my boss ‘A’ for anonymity sake.
Me: Hey A, what’s up?
A: Oh Wren, I’m so sorry I’m calling you on your time off. I hope everything is going okay with the move.
Me: Yeah, we’re in now. What’s going on?
A: I’m not going to lie, we’ve had the week from hell. I didn’t want to call you but you need to know about it. A member of staff has tested positive and it’s spread, three of the guys are ill and it’s spreading through the ranks. I was worried that you might have caught it too.
Me: No, I’m fine. And I got myself tested the other day before the move just to be sure we could go ahead with it all. It was negative.
A: Thank God! We’re literally down to half staff now, we’re all working every day and I’ve been doing doubles. The guys are all isolated in their rooms, but three of them are very, very poorly. We’re doing our best but it’s been a hard week. I was calling to make sure that it wasn’t a total shock to you when you got back and to make sure that you were okay.
Me: Don’t worry, I’m fine. How about you?
And she burst into tears. It broke my heart. She’s a hard worker and she looks after us but the stress and the guilt she was feeling was too much. My partner was looking at me the whole of the conversation and he shook his head. He knew what was coming.
Me: When do you need me?
Don’t get me wrong, I really, really needed the break that I had, but they needed me more. I could put off the unpacking, but the people I worked with needed help, and the guys we supported needed extra help. I couldn’t stand the thought of them being ill and not having the full support that they needed, not having someone there when they were ill and afraid.
My boss was so apologetic, but so relieved, giving me the new guidelines over the phone and booking me in for new shifts so that some of the others who had worked full tilt for the week, could have some much needed rest.
My partner wasn’t best pleased, he knew I was tired, physically and mentally, with old back issues flaring up again, and my mental health beginning to flag, but he also knows I’m a stubborn cow and I love my job. And he knew that everyone that I worked with was struggling, just as he knew that we were a brilliant team who would do anything to help each other out. We were all in the same boat and if anyone else I worked with had been on annual leave, I know they would have come back too. It’s a labour of love.
And so I went back a week early to a house ripped apart by Covid. From the moment I stepped into the house, the sharp smell of disinfectant and bleach hit me like a brick. It was weirdly quiet, not one of the people we support coming to the door to greet me, which was usually the norm. In front of the door was the usual table, packed with bottles of hand sanitiser and our PPE laid out, which I quickly put on before heading to the bathroom to change my clothes, scrub my arms and any other exposed skin and don another round of PPE. I could hear someone in the house coughing. Stepping into the spare room that serves as an office, my manager was waiting. She looked absolutely exhausted with dark bags under her red eyes behind her plastic face shield as she tried to smile at me. It was a smile that didn’t reach those tired eyes. She seemed relieved, but so, so worried.
A: I wish I could give you a hug.
Slowly we made our way through the house. Two of the guys had no symptoms at all, but were relegated to their rooms, which is incredibly hard for men with learning disabilities who are used to having free rein of the house. They looked bored and withdrawn, but brightened a little as we peeked into their rooms, knowing that we had to stay in the doorway, but happy for the fleeting company.
And then we got to P’s room and I broke. P is usually a very happy, very bouncy man. He’s in his mid-sixties and has dementia and Down syndrome. He’s the life of the house, always laughing and joking, making us laugh with his antics and there’s always a smile on his face. What I saw when I entered his room scared the hell out of me. He was propped up in his bed, his eyes sunken really far back into his head, glassy and staring. He didn’t even acknowledge us entering, his breath ragged and struggling under his little Liverpool bed throw. Turning to me, my boss told me how he had refused food for days and getting him to drink was near impossible. He’d vomited a few times too. There were tears in her eyes
again, she was terrified that he wasn’t going to make it, terrified that the little light of the house was about to go out, and looking down on him at that moment, so was I. Covid was ravaging his little body, which had already been going through so much with so many other health issues. Because of his dementia, he just couldn’t comprehend what was going on and he lashed out at us.
We cleaned ourselves once more, and moved onto the next room. G’s room. G is one of our youngest residents, in his mid-fifties, and is our resident baker and chatterbox. G has epilepsy, mobility issues and learning disabilities, but is our loudest resident, always full of questions and always wanting to be doing something. Thankfully, he was already past the worst of it, being younger than the rest, but he was still far from being well. Upon entering his room, he gave me a smile, although it wasn’t as enthusiastic or followed by his usual barrage of questions. He was happy to see me, but too tired to even bother making idle chit chat, only asking for a drink of water which I had to help him with, before rolling over and
going back to sleep.
Lastly, we went to D’s room. Now I know I shouldn’t have favourites, but D has a very special place in my heart. D is a wonderful man, but has had a very difficult past and as such has behavioural issues that can be very challenging. When I first met D, he absolutely did not like me, at all, and had issues with snatching and minor aggression amongst other things. I saw D as my own personal challenge at work; I was determined for him to like me, and as a result I worked very hard to cultivate a very close relationship with him. Now, he’s referred to as my shadow at work because he follows me everywhere. He makes my day an absolute joy, and I’m so proud when I look back and see how far he’s come with his behaviour. He hugs people now, which is by far my proudest achievement, that he now has the trust to be able to let his guard down like that. So you can imagine how worried I was going into his room.
Again, the smell of disinfectant was almost overpowering when I went in. D was laid in bed like the rest but laid flat. I almost cried when I saw how much weight he’d lost. He was already a slender man, but in the past week, he had practically wasted away. It broke my heart all over again when he saw me and tried to sit up, smiling at me. Again, he was refusing to eat, his cough was too much for him to keep anything down and he already had a choking risk in place. He was too weak to even make it to the bathroom, and too feverish to sleep off the exhaustion.
And so I saw the full horrors of Covid over the next two weeks. Despite the full PPE and taking every precaution, the staff continued to catch the virus, one by one until there were four of us left standing. Being in the job we are, we all knew that it was more likely than not that we were going to come down with it, but it’s part of the role and we weren’t willing to leave the guys without the support and help that they needed. We were exposed to the infected every single day, but it couldn’t be helped because if we didn’t, we knew we could very well lose one or more of the people we supported. Every day we would mask up, disinfect and wash, hoping against hope that today wasn’t the day that it would get to us.
When another member of staff caught it, we would just get on with it, rework the shifts, filling any gaps and tightening ranks, to the point where some of us were reaching fifty hours a week. And although that may not sound like much to some, it is when you’re constantly lifting, washing, feeding, carrying out personal care, and you do so without a break. It seems even longer when you can barely sleep for anxiety, worried that you’ll go into work the next day and find someone hasn’t gotten through the night or that we had contracted the virus and taken it home to our loved ones. Anxious that those of us still there were asymptomatic and were silently spreading the virus without even knowing it. It got to the point where I was lucky to get three hours a night, and even when I did sleep, I dreamt of work. It took its toll
on all of us, to the point where one member of staff had a minor stroke because of the
We kept in touch with those of the team who had come down with the virus, each of them affected in different ways. Some of them had minor symptoms, only losing their taste and smell, with slight flu symptoms. Others were hospitalised, absolutely ruined by the virus. But each and every single one of them, despite being ill, would ask about the guys, wanting to know if they were okay, if they were pulling through.
It was so, so hard. I thought, at one point, that I was going to break. But, just as it seemed to become too much, we began to see a change. With the constant care and vigilance, after two weeks of feeding the guys by hand, pleading and coaxing to get them to drink and washing them by hand, we slowly but surely saw them improve.
D began to put on weight and his cough no longer shook his entire body. He could sit up in bed and he began asking for his favourite music to be put on. G would take small steps around his room, and when he started hounding me for crisps I knew he had turned a corner. Little P, who I was so sure wasn’t going to come out the other side of it, was found sitting up in his bed one morning making the assortment of animal sounds that he usually greeted us with when he first woke up. I swear to God, I burst out crying when I saw it. There was our little light at the end of the tunnel.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been long term complications because of Covid and I don’t think little P will ever go back to exactly who he was before. He has health issues that have come about because of this, and it seems to have accelerated his dementia so that we will never have the old P back completely. But he’s here, and we are so happy that we can and will deal with the consequences of this virus and we will continue to give him the best life that we can.
Thanks to the efforts of our team, two men in the house were saved from Covid which we are so thankful for, as one of them is very old and it’s very unlikely he would have survived it.
Speak to anyone who is part of our team and they will say that it was worth it. It was worth the gruelling hours, worth the sleepless nights, worth the aching muscles and even worth contracting the virus themselves, all because we managed to keep those who we support safe and alive.
The life of a care worker isn’t an easy one. We are paid next to nothing, surviving on minimum wage – a lot of people on low hour or insecure contracts in a job that is physically and mentally difficult. It’s care staff who are the people who look after our most vulnerable in society, who are there to look after us when we are at the end of our lives and have worked tirelessly through this pandemic. They have put themselves and those they love in danger and they’ve done it with dignity and determination. We’re constantly referred to as ‘unskilled’ labour, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our job is physically hard, mentally even more so and we have to adapt to an ever-changing workplace quickly and efficiently.
I am so proud to call myself a care worker and to be a part of my team. Each and every single one of them deserves a medal for what they have been through in the past year.
So, that’s your tiny insight into my experience with Covid in care work and before I go, I want to ask one thing:
Please, now that the end is in sight in regards to the pandemic, don’t forget us.
When everything is back to normal and the danger has passed, please remember that doctors and nurses, support workers and teachers, warehouse operatives and supermarket staff, all worked so hard to keep the country going in this mad twelve months.
Don’t clap for us. Fight to give us a real living wage, to nurses the pay rise they desperately need, to retail workers to keep them safe from unfair work practices, and to generally give us a better life.
Please, don’t forget us.
The Tories claimed they had thrown a ‘protective ring’ around care homes. They lied. The government’s policy has always been – and still is – to send known-infected patients back to care homes to keep NHS beds free. Tens of thousands died as a result.
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