Thousands of retired doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have offered to return to the NHS during the coronavirus crisis. Why are they going back and how can they make a difference?
For Dr Jane Williams, a retired GP, evidence of the mounting pressure on the NHS came worryingly close to home. She was contacted by a friend who had become breathless and was worried they had coronavirus. She urged the friend to call the NHS 111 service. Despite quickly getting through to an expert, they didn’t get a call back for 24 hours.
“You realise what severe pressures the 111 service must be under,” Dr Williams says. “It’s very hard to stop being a doctor. I feel the sooner that I can be deployed to help, the better really.”
In the next few days, she hopes to start working from home doing telephone triage for 111, a role she feels that at the age of 64, she is safest doing.
Dr Williams kept her medical licence after retiring from the Surrey GP surgery, where she had been a partner for 30 years, in October 2016. It meant that just last week, she was able to step in when two doctors were self-isolating.
“I had missed being on the frontline. It was a really lovely experience, meeting the staff who are all pulling together, but also many of the patients I knew. It really signifies the GP is the family doctor.”
When Kim, 58, a former frontline nurse, left to teach student nurses and other healthcare workers, she kept her medical licence out of pride and in the knowledge she might one day need it.
“When the chips are down, you’ve got to stand up and be alongside your colleagues.”
And stand up she did. After a 25-year break from working in intensive care, Kim has returned as a bank nurse, covering shifts at an intensive care unit.
“It is about being with people at that really terrible time in their lives,” she says. “Everybody is scared.”
The married mother-of-two says although her skills are a bit “rusty”, the “essential” ones – talking to people, working in a team, and being kind – never leave you. For her, kindness has been the most important part of being back on the frontline.
“The other day, [a patient] had a suitcase with them, and I thought I’d open [it] and see if they had a toothbrush, so I used their own toothbrush to clean their teeth, and sprayed a bit of aftershave on them from their wash bag. I combed their hair and made sure that they were shaved. These human things are really important for us all, it’s to do with our dignity.”
Her first week back was a “really big shock” that left her feeling “exhausted and drained”. But she says it is a “privilege” to be back working with colleagues and patients.
Dr Andrew T Cohen is a retired consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine, at Leeds teaching hospitals. He says he felt compelled to return to work after reading stories of NHS staff being redeployed to critical care roles.
“It just seemed to me that it was outside of their comfort zone but it was exactly where my comfort zone had been for 35 years as a consultant,” he says.
He says critical care is a “highly pressurised” area and staff in the unit have to be able to deal with extreme stress “even under normal circumstances”.
Now, approaching the age of 68, he is conscious he can’t work in the same way he used to. But having been recently re-registered by the General Medical Council (GMC), he hopes to “free up” younger colleagues to do more urgent work. He says anaesthetists and critical care specialists like him are experts at quickly becoming familiar with different types of equipment – a skill that could come in very useful when hospitals receive new government-ordered ventilators.
“There will be a staff working under a lot of pressure,” he says. “But our speciality is team-based, and people will pull together and help each other.”
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Meanwhile, Richard Kerr, an honorary consultant neurosurgeon at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, says he has seen a lot of change in his 40 years working for the health service.
But he says the rapid spread of the virus “has left everyone reeling”.
“I think it’s pretty scary. There’s a degree of uncertainty. But being pragmatic, if we don’t do something about this, it’s only going to get worse.”
The 64-year-old is in discussions to John Radcliffe Hospital, in Oxford, where he performed his last operation – a craniotomy for a brain tumour – in February last year.
He is a council member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, but says he will be happy to initially return in a supporting role. He’s not ruled out a return to the operating theatre or to more junior ranks – taking bloods and putting up drips.
“I might not get the vein first time,” he jokes, “but I can usually get there.”