“Would I say the degree itself prepared us for a pandemic? No. But did it prepare us to be resilient nurses and carry out our work as nurses? Yes, I definitely would.” Zara Zaman (Adult Nursing, 2018) was one of the many nurses who were redeployed to intensive care units when the first and second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK. Although always passionate about caring for others, she credits the staff and her studies at City, University of London for the strong foundation she’s built on during the crisis.
“I can’t sugarcoat it. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. It was really tough. But there were moments, or there were things that at least helped,” Zara Zaman explains when she looks back at the past year. She was deployed twice, during the first Covid-19 wave and the second, to an intensive care unit (ICU) in London to take care of the sickest patients.
“There was a high need of critical care nurses, which meant nurses from different specialities had to move from their clinical areas for a period of time and adapt to a new environment.”
Even with the assistance of nurses from other specialities the conditions could feel overwhelming.
“When it came to the nurse-to-patient ratio, that was really challenging. It’s so difficult even for experienced ICU nurses of like 20 years to go from one-to-one care, to one-to-two, to one-to-three, to one-to-four. It’s kind of impossible to even think about, like even me saying it, I don’t know how we did it because there’s just so much to do for one patient. How can we then triple it or quadruple it? It was very intense.”
Zara had previously worked on wards for surgery patients, something she’d wanted to do ever since her placements while studying adult nursing at City, University of London. She speaks very highly of her time at City, both of her studies and the community and activities on campus.
“I think a really big part of that was the course itself and the lecturers that were part of the course. They were so passionate. They were actual nurses who had been working in the specialties and fields that they love, and then they got into teaching and you could tell … “Every time they spoke, they genuinely wanted us to grow into both competent and compassionate nurses,” Zara says.
She still recalls a welcome talk that was given at the induction of her course.
“I remember him saying that those of you who’ve just come from school or have just done a gap year and coming into nursing, you are going to experience things that not many 18- or 19-year-olds will experience at your age. You are going to be looking after people who are very sick. We’re going to put their trust in you to look after them. You’re going to see life, you’re going to see death, you’re going to see people at their worst. And hopefully, you’ll see people also make positive achievements. That is something that not everyone at that age goes through.”
At the time, Zara didn’t feel she could quite connect with those words, having come straight out of school and not had any, as she calls it, “hardcore life experience”, but during her studies and the start of her career it became reality for her.
“I think nursing itself shaped me, but when I think of the pandemic it has shaped me even more because we were dealing with nursing in such a different context.”
Both the first and the second wave challenged the NHS and wider care sector, but looking back, Zara feels like the second wave was much tougher, despite the increased experience she had.
“This time around, the patients were sicker. Like, I don’t know how else to say it. We were seeing a lot of younger patients coming through. There was a different demographic, really, we were dealing with. It was Covid, but it was Covid presenting itself differently.”
There was also the issue of understaffing, and other challenges that were out of their control, and naturally, they had hoped they wouldn’t have to return.
“I think those nurses, like myself, that were redeployed again, we were like, “Oh, gosh, it’s all happening again”, and I guess no one wanted to relive that,” Zara says, mentioning the toll it took on them mentally, but she also knew she had to step up and use the knowledge she’d gained during the first wave.
The strain on the staff member’s mental wellbeing can’t be ignored though, and it’s something Zara had to take seriously as well.
“We were dealing with very sick patients, patients passing away on a daily basis. The patient you had been looking after for days, hopeful they would pull through and wake up from being sedated … You’d come to work and find out they’d passed away overnight, or they’re deteriorating and you have to have those tough conversations with the family members.”
According to Zara, the nurses all did their best to take care of each other, provide light relief, and offer support whenever they could.
“There was never a moment that I couldn’t go to another nurse, whether they were senior, junior, or a redeployed nurse, and ask for help. Like everyone was just understanding of each other,” she says. “Everyone was like “Okay, this is tough”. If I could see that a nurse was struggling, and I could see that my patient was stable, there wouldn’t be a second thought before going over and help. We would always take the initiative if we could see our colleagues struggling. We were just there. No questions asked. And I think that’s what made the whole chaotic situation just a bit more, I don’t know, bearable.”
How did Zara Zaman tend to her own mental health?
“They do teach us about this because of the nature of the job. But I think I had to kind of re-evaluate how I needed to care and tend to my mental health,” she explains.
“I wasn’t allowing myself to actually understand my emotions, because I was very much “Go, go, go, go, go, go”. Yes, it was a tough shift, but I’ll deal with it later. I just don’t have time. Or I’m tired right now but I have to push through these six hours because I don’t have time to be tired. And that became very toxic, because over time that builds up.”
Zara describes herself as an active person who likes to do things on her days off, but during the past year, that wasn’t always the case.
“I found myself not wanting to do anything, because I had overworked myself. So I guess the important thing was acknowledging and accepting; this is what I’m feeling, don’t ignore it, tend to it. If you are feeling tired, force yourself to sit down. If you are feeling quite low, okay, do something that makes you happy.”
Zara is still passionate about nursing and knows it’s what she wants to continue doing. She also wants to help younger nurses and students if she can, which is why she is happy to share her experiences.
“I think I’ve tried my best to kind of be open about my mental health and wellbeing so that students who do follow me on my socials can learn from that because there’s not enough emphasis on mental health and wellbeing,” she says.
“You have to be passionate to work in healthcare, because then when you do have those tough shifts, and you do have those moments where you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is too much”, you can always remind yourself why you’re doing it in the first place.”
A big thank you to Zara Zaman for sharing her experience in these uncertain times.