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Manager of Bury St Edmunds West Suffolk Hospital's first Covid-19 ward reflects on the 'compassion and resilience' of staff on anniversary of first lockdown




When the nation falls silent today to remember the thousands who died in the pandemic, West Suffolk Hospital ward manager Claire Starie will reflect on the patients they have lost and her team’s unique journey through unprecedented times.

Claire leads ward F7 which became the Bury St Edmunds hospital’s first Covid-19 ward just over a year ago on the day the pandemic was declared.

Plunged into a situation no modern-day healthcare workers have ever faced, her team have grappled with anxiety, loss, pressure and a gruelling winter after colleagues contracted the virus.

The F7 team at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds
The F7 team at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds

Covid has dominated virtually every aspect of the 60-strong team’s lives over the last 12 months but through it all, their perseverance has inspired each other to keep going.

“The main thing I will always remember will be the compassion and resilience the staff have shown,” Claire said.

“I’ve been part of lots of teams but when you’re dealing with something like this, it’s a team on a different level.

I feel if you can combat a pandemic, you can combat anything - Claire Starie

“Everyone has grown almost like family because everyone has had to rely on each other so much.”

Their working lives were transformed on March 12 last year when it was decided F7 would be West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust’s first ward to care for coronavirus patients.

As a short stay acute medical ward, at the time F7 was one of the only wards in the hospital with closable glass doors across the bays.

When whispers began of a far away virus that quickly took hold across Europe, Claire, 42, was well aware her ward was equipped to deal with infection prevention.

The F7 team includes 60 members of staff
The F7 team includes 60 members of staff

“It wasn’t a complete surprise to me when I was approached and it was literally the day it was declared a pandemic,” she said.

“The only knowledge we really had of Covid at that time was what we had seen on the news in Italy which was all pretty shocking.

“I knew I had a really strong team and nurses with really great clinical skills but the prospect of having to tell them ‘we’re going to have to do this’, it was pretty horrible actually.

West Suffolk Hospital ward manager Claire Starie
West Suffolk Hospital ward manager Claire Starie

“I’m not sure I knew what the reaction would be when I told them because I knew myself it was quite a frightening prospect.

“There was lots in the news about healthcare staff in different countries dying. As a nurse you don’t really expect to come to work and put your life on the line.

“When I told them, everyone was so supportive and said ‘we’re in this together’. Their reaction was actually really overwhelming.”

In the 24 hours that followed, a flurry of infection prevention precautions and training was implemented.

Claire, who has managed F7 since July 2017 and qualified as a nurse in 2005, had a background in respiratory work.

Along with a couple of other nurses, she had experience of using the CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) equipment - a tight fitting ventilation mask - and had to train all of the F7 nurses how to use it in a very short time period.

We were all really affected by some of the situations we faced with families and individual patients

On March 13, she drove into work under a cloud of anxiety, not knowing what they would face.

Their first patient with suspected coronavirus arrived that day but at the time the testing process was slower and it took about two days before they knew if the patient actually had the virus.

“At the beginning, we were all really anxious and then I think like anything you adapt to the new ways of working,” Claire said.

“We were all really affected by some of the situations we faced with families and individual patients.

“We all have the patients we remember for certain reasons so that was quite tough.”

As time went on, they learnt more about the virus and testing improved but the hardest moment was over the winter when infections rocketed and many staff members caught the virus.

We will all remember those patients who we’ve lost but I think also we will remember what a journey we’ve been on for that year

“It was a huge amount of pressure because we were still dealing with the same number of patients who were really really sick and dealing with low staffing levels because we were all ill,” she said.

“That was a really difficult time - that was definitely my low point.”

Claire contracted Covid-19 in December which ‘ruined’ Christmas for her family but she feels she was ‘lucky’ as she avoided severe symptoms.

West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds
West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds

She praised the use of lateral flow tests which traced the virus among staff who were asymptomatic and helped reduce the spread.

In the first wave, Claire said there were two or three other wards which cared for Covid-19 patients and F7 shared their experiences to support them but at one point, towards the end of the year, most wards dealt with coronavirus.

With staff dealing with Covid 24/7 at work and home, she highlighted the trust’s efforts to help them with a wellbeing service, support groups and one to ones with clinical psychologists.

“They’ve been really helpful,” she said.

“Normally I can separate work and home very easily but because the two ran together for so long, you would go home and it would all be about Covid on the TV but I’m lucky I’ve got a really good family at home - they really helped me.

“Everyone has done their bit and there has been a lot of support from the executives. They’ve been really understanding of the situation we’re in and that makes a huge difference.”

The vaccine provided a shot of hope for the nation and there was an ‘air of excitement’ around the hospital when staff began to receive their jabs.

They will today join the nation in a minute’s silence in a day reflection to mark the anniversary of the first lockdown.

“Naturally we will all remember those patients who we’ve lost but I think also we will remember what a journey we’ve been on for that year - how much it has changed from when we first started to how it is now in terms of treatment and knowledge of the illness,” she said.

The pandemic has tested and affected us all in different ways and changed our perspective on what matters in life.

For Claire, its lasting legacy is one of determination and survival.

“I definitely feel more resilient,” she said.

“I feel if you can combat a pandemic, you can combat anything.”

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