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‘I’ve been thrown in at the deep end but I’m really, really grateful’: experiences of a student nurse on the frontline of Covid-19

  • Student nurse Harriet Widdowson is currently undertaking a placement on a ward which primarily looks after coronavirus patients 
  • She received the vaccine in mid-January along with healthcare staff across the UK
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson aims to vaccinate all priority groups, including healthcare workers and the over-70s, by mid-February

In the aftermath of the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine being rolled out and administered to many across the UK, NQ reporters Melissa Chilvers and Hannah Terry held an exclusive interview with Harriet (Hattie) Widdowson, 19, a student nurse who works on a Covid ward and received the vaccination in January.

As of 15 January, 25,000 people in Manchester had received the vaccine, with those in the top priority groups, which include care home residents and staff, the over-70s, high risk people over 65, and health and social care staff being the first to receive the jab.

Hattie is currently in her first year of studying adult nursing at Manchester Metropolitan University and has been placed on an acute respiratory ward, at Wythenshawe Hospital since September.

As part of her training, Hattie assists healthcare workers with looking after patients on the ward, all 28 of whom are currently covid-positive.

We caught up with her to ask about her experience of working on the frontline and what having the vaccine meant for her.

MC: What was your experience of receiving the vaccine?

HW: I had the Pfizer vaccine on January 14 at the MRI hospital. It wasn’t painful actually getting the vaccine, but I was warned it might be painful the day after. I did get a sore arm and felt feverish and sick the next day, but I was on a long shift so just had to get on with it! Everyone on our ward has been vaccinated now who wants it, which needed to happen as we are very much in the eye of the storm.

It was really important to me to get the vaccine as working on our ward puts us and our families at risk so it’s definitely a relief to feel like I’m no longer in danger by going in.

Hattie herself contracted coronavirus in October last year

HT: What has your experience of working on a covid ward been?

HW: This is my first experience of working as a nurse in a hospital and I’ve been put at the height of a pandemic. I've been thrown in at the deep end but I'm really, really grateful. In the future, I’ll be able to say that I trained on a Covid ward so I think that’s lucky, but at the same time it is intense and I do sometimes feel like I’m in a bit of a warzone.

I have so much respect for every single person working in a hospital, particularly on covid wards, because they are just doing an amazing job. The nurses and doctors genuinely care and I’m so in awe of them. I feel so certain about my career and know that this is what I want to do.

MC: What challenges have you faced through working in this role?

HW: I’ve definitely struggled with the amount of death I've seen. It really affects you as a person. With family members not being able to visit patients due to restrictions it’s really difficult to see. If we recognise that a patient is deteriorating and know that they might not make it, they are allowed maybe one family member in to come and say goodbye. Obviously, in situations like that, there is nothing worse. It’s horrible.

As an individual I've not really been that familiar with death and I’ve never really known that many people die in my life so when you see it face on it can be really hard.

A year ago today I was doing a completely different degree [English and Multimedia Journalism] but changed my mind completely over summer. I dropped out of my course in April, had my nursing interview on June 25, and got accepted on June 26.

My life has literally flipped in the space of six months but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hattie began studying Adult Nursing in September 2020

HT: What has been the most rewarding aspect for you?

HW: There are a lot of rewarding times, even if a patient is really ill and things don’t necessarily look great, it’s little things that make you feel good like knowing you’ve made that moment more comfortable for them or you’ve done a nice thing for them and know that they’re grateful.

A lot of these people are so grateful for the people who are looking after them and I think that’s so amazing.

I had an experience where I helped an elderly man’s wife and he brought me a box of chocolates because his wife had mentioned me by name and said how lovely I was. It honestly made me cry, I rang my mum afterwards to tell her!

It’s things like that that keep you doing the job every day.

MC: Have you learnt anything about yourself from this experience?

HW: I’m definitely way more resilient than I thought I was. I thought I was a really emotional, sensitive person but working here has made me realise that I’ve got much thicker skin than I thought. I do handle it differently to how I thought I’d handle it. As hard as it is, I love being a part of it. I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather be doing.

There are currently 50 mass vaccination centres throughout England and over 1,300 NHS sites offering the Covid-19 vaccination.

The majority of those in the top priority groups have now received the vaccination, with Manchester aiming to deliver a total of 214,000 vaccines by mid-April.

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