For Yvonne Bradley, it’s the memory of the special bond between her late husband Barry, 73, and their great-grandson Harrison, six, that hurts the most.
“Harrison had some speech and language issues at the time. He wouldn’t talk to anyone. Only Barry could understand him,” says Yvonne, from Five Roads, near Llanelli.
“Harrison would often come over and stay the night with us, and Barry would always sleep in with him and talk to him in bed.
“When we brought Barry’s ashes home, Harrison asked if I could help him lift the box on to the sofa, and then he went and got a pillow so that he could lie down next to him.”
Yvonne’s story is one of many countless tragedies that reflect the true human cost of Covid-19 in the two years since it first emerged as a novel coronavirus in Wuhan province, China. In that time, the virus has claimed over 150,000 lives in the UK, and millions more worldwide, piling untold pressure on countries, economies, societies – and healthcare professionals, who continue to battle daily to keep their patients and the public safe.
Professor Keir Lewis, a Consultant in Respiratory Medicine at Llanelli’s Prince Philip Hospital, has seen a lot of trauma. As the hospital’s Covid-19 clinical lead, he still remembers Barry’s final days, when it became clear that treatments were no longer working, and of the heartbreaking last time that he and Harrison said goodbye.
“Barry had responded to treatment at first, but then he started to deteriorate; we’d given him everything we could, but he was slowly getting weaker and his family were coming to see him through the window,” he said.
“As his condition started to deteriorate, he didn’t want his family to see him so much, but we would still comb his hair and dress him and turn him to face the window.
“I remember one visit where this little boy touched the window with his finger, and Barry touched the glass on the other side. That was how they said goodbye. It really affected me, and it affected a lot of the other staff too,” says Prof. Lewis, with a deep sigh.
For staff on the frontline, who continue to deal daily with the effects of Covid-19, both directly and indirectly, the last two years have been a ‘high octane, emotional rollercoaster,’ in the words of Dr. Manon Griffiths, a Clinical Psychologist supporting staff on Hywel Dda’s four Intensive Care Units (ICUs).
Being able to share in their patients’ journeys, and to celebrate successful outcomes, has been a key part of their ability to process these emotions, says Dr Griffiths – as has the importance of providing a dignified and supportive environment when patients are dying.
She added: “You know what it feels like when you listen to the staff? Some of them talk about the validation, really, of the hard work they put in when they're seeing patients. The gratitude and the thanks.
“And from my point of view, the one thing I really want to work on and get back into the system is that we need to learn to celebrate our successes so much more, because that's what reminds us that what we do matters, and that how much we care has an impact on the patients’ experience and their journey through the hospital.
“Even when we've lost patients, we've had families that have just been so grateful and so thankful for providing such a dignified and supportive environment for their relative. And, you know, I think being able to provide a dignified death for patients is a really special thing.”
There are other positives to hang on to, too. Themes of fulfilment still come across strongly from other healthcare staff across the region, with some having even found their vocation in life in the midst of the pandemic.
Fiona Reynolds joined Dyfi Ward, at Bronglais General Hospital in Aberystwyth, as a Family Liaison Officer in April 2021, having made a ‘big change’ – ending a long term relationship, moving house and leaving her former job in hospitality.
She said: “It's honestly changed my life. I've had so many people holding my hand and even crying, and saying that they’ll never, ever forget my kindness and what a huge difference I have made. I’ve never experienced that before. It’s overwhelming.
“I remember building a very good relationship with an elderly lady who was suffering from extreme confusion. We put a diary together and I helped to manage her calendar so that she could remember what day it was, and that really helped her as a person. And when I escorted her to her care home, she said how glad she was and that she would have been very frightened without me.
“Joining a hospital in the middle of a pandemic was strange, because there are no visitors and patients can get very down. They get lonely, and that’s really difficult for a lot of them. So just being able to sit and talk with them, and to hear their stories, is brilliant. It’s an honour.”
For others, the pandemic has opened their eyes to a career in healthcare that they had not anticipated in previous life.
Laura Lee, a Bank Healthcare Support Worker (HCSW) on Sunderland Ward, South Pembrokeshire Hospital, is already looking forward to studying for a nursing degree, having joined the NHS in September 2021.
“I used to work in interior design and had thought about applying to become a nurse, but I it wasn't a definite thing until I actually started working here. Yesterday I had an interview to study nursing at university, so I’m really excited about that!
“Working here during the pandemic has been eye opening. The way that the team just came together is so inspirational, and obviously because the patients don’t have their families here with them, having that communication and building relationships with them has been really rewarding.”
Later this year, a memorial garden is due to open in the grounds of Prince Philip Hospital. It will commemorate the lives of those who passed away, and of those who have survived - and still carry the scars - of the Covid-19 pandemic. A simple sculpture, with two fingertips touching, will be unveiled in memory of a man who touched the hearts of all of the NHS staff who cared for him, who was jokingly given a bell to ring by the nurses who all knew his name. A man who shared a special bond with his great grandson. A man called Barry.
“Since he passed away, the whole family has found it very hard,” says Yvonne.
“Losing Barry has left a huge hole in our lives, and we are still completely lost without him. He used to light up any room he walked into.
“After he died, Harrison would talk to the stars in the sky and say they were his ‘bampa,’” she adds, through tears.
*Hywel Dda University Health Board will hold a day of reflection and a minutes’ silence at noon on 23 March, 2022, led by our Chair, Chief Executive and Senior Chaplain. You can hear more stories from Hywel Dda UHB staff here: https://hyweldda.libsyn.com/