On my first day, I am told to go to the staff canteen and explain that I don’t yet have my ID because I am newly drafted in to help. The smiling server behind the counter cheerfully exclaims, “Welcome to Hell!” as she hands me my meal.
My first time on a COVID ward, the senior pharmacist I am working with patiently teaches me how to get into my protective equipment in the correct order. I can sense her anxiety around making sure I am safe. We are all in this together.
When working in the drug deliveries bay, the delivery drivers are a procession of friendly eyes above masked mouths. Many make an effort to learn my name, and as the weeks go by, jokey exchanges become another symbol of solidarity.
I am chatting to a porter and he solemnly tells me about his friend recently dying in the intensive care unit. Even from 2 meters away, I can feel the waves of sadness and regret. “Even though I work here, I still couldn’t visit him to say goodbye.”
One morning, I walk into the staff room to find vases of cut flowers, arranged to form a rainbow of optimism along the table. They stand brightly for a week but begin to wilt as the death toll continues to rise.
I see nurses helping each other out of their overalls and aprons, trudging through trays of disinfectant at the end of their long shifts. They look exhausted, but still manage to smile as I catch their eyes. We are all in this together.
The children’s ward is covered in drawings of butterflies, dolphins, and angels. Many of the staff on this ward carry crayon notes in the pockets of their scrubs—talismans of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.
I rush along nondescript corridors, a panicky air hostess with a green trolley, delivering essential medicines to the COVID wards.
My manager carries googly eyes around the department. They appear, stuck in unexpected places to bring a smile into our day. Now the staplers, the doorways, even the cardboard boxes are looking out for us. We are all in this together.
I top up the cancer medication in the oncology department. The day-unit is deserted, as the patients are fearful of coming into the hospital. A Spanish nurse answers patient phone calls all afternoon, providing reassurance, laughter, and respite. Between calls, he tells me how worried he is for the safety of his patients. “I care for them as I would my own brothers,” he confides.
I am wearing a mask and gloves. I can feel the panic rising in my chest. The heat and the breath and the closeness of it all. I force myself to count slowly and focus on the current task. I manage to fight it back down and at lunch I sit outside to feel the sun on my face. I exchange meaningless texts with my housemate, which make me smile, and I am certain that I will be able to get through this. We will be able to get through this, even though it is dark and awful and claustrophobic at times. We will be there for each other, to guide each other into the sunlight and the silly texts which are waiting on the other side. We are all in this together.