Opinion

“We are just all kids trying to deal with this” : Healthcare Students on the Covid-19 Frontline

Source: Ada Yokota Via Getty Images

By Bethany Dawson

All names used are fake in order to preserve the anonymity of sources.

Final year healthcare students are experiencing life under Covid-19 on a wholly different plane from their peers. Students from non healthcare professions have the privilege of turning off their push notifications and ignoring the barrage of news on social media to get some much needed distance from the crisis; that option does not exist for students working on the front line. 

Walking through the doors of their workplace is a harsh reminder of the magnitude of Covid-19; “don’t underestimate how scary it can be walking into a ward, having to change into your uniform at work as to not put anyone in your house at risk” notes Sam, a recently qualified paediatric nurse. Going home, however, doesn’t allow for time away from fear: “The guilt of putting my family at risk by possibly bringing the virus home is one of the worst feelings” says Tara, a final year paediatric nurse.

As the number of deaths in the UK and the infection rate grow, as do anxieties surround the virus. Talking about the fear of contracting covid-19, Avery – a final year adult nurse – said “It went from ‘if I get it’ to ‘when I get it’ to ‘I hope I don’t die’, we are just all kids trying to deal with this.” 

The evidence base shows that students aren’t alone in their anxiety. A recent survey on the experiences of nursing staff in the early phases of the pandemic show that one-third of respondents reported experiencing severe or extremely severe depression, anxiety or stress, with 74% said they felt their personal health was in jeopardy in the pandemic due to their clinical role, while almost all (92%) were worried about risks to their family members.

Jobs are changing on a daily basis, with priorities switching away from building a rapport and bedside manner to dodging the ever-growing threats posed by the pandemic. “Something as small as a face mask means that these children can’t see whether you are smiling at them … knowing that children can’t see your smile is hard”, said Sam. The crisis is impacting patients at the first stages of their life, and when life is just about to begin. Kiera, a student midwife, noted “we have always been taught about creating trusting relationships with our patients, the art of reassurance and unique care tailored to each woman as she goes through her journey of motherhood. During this crisis, it feels it has all gone out the window as we are minimising the time we spend with each woman to protect staff and the people we are caring for … I never expected to be turning away partners who are bonding with their baby, or not have a mother see the smile under my mask as I coach her through her labour.”

Healthcare students have been hit with an all or nothing situation: either temporarily suspend your studies or work on the frontline, which one final year adult nurse describes as a “warzone”. Avery describes the situation as being blackmailed into either going into the emergency register or being forced to take a year out.” This places students in an impossible situation, battling the decision whether to jump onto the frontline and risk their lives, or suspend their studies and postpone the service they’ve been training for years to provide to the public. 

On the contentious topic of either joining the emergency register, Sam told us: “students are finishing their training 6 months early and those last 6 months [are formative for] a nurse, you have your final 12 week placement to make sure you are competent and safe, and now this has been taken away.” The choice to practice is nothing short of anxiety inducing. 

For student paramedics, their final year has been turned on its head as they are no longer working in ambulance placements, one student describes their work as having “changed dramatically”. Final year paramedic students have now been allocated alternative placements within hospital A&E’s and minor injury units. Paramedic student Kiera says this is “extremely saddening” and it has had a “massive impact on [their] wellbeing.”

Many students noted the growing level of awareness for the invaluable service provided by healthcare students as a silver lining to this situation, with Sara, a final year paramedic, telling Incite: “the public have now acknowledged just how difficult our job can be and that other university students now realise just how tough it can be for students undertaking healthcare programme.”

The class of 2020 are putting themselves at risk to save the lives of millions. Not only are they taking this heroic course of action: they are paying to do so. The students serving the front line are the same students who were the first to have the NHS bursary removed from their studies. One anonymous student told us that: They are putting their lives on the line alongside nurses with years of experience, the least we can do is thank them, thank them by clapping every Thursday, by random acts of kindness, but the ultimate thank you being, scrapping their student debt. While our nursing students are fighting the pandemic, we need to fight for the scrapping of their student debt.” 

A sure fire sign of a broken, or at least breaking, system is one that requires the mass action of students before they are ready to leave University. Showing solidarity with them has to amount to more than clapping on Thursdays, more than a badge of thanks, more than a poster in your window. These acts of gratitude are seen and appreciated – as confirmed by the discussions had for this article – but they’re empty if we do not fight for the scrapping of tuition fees and safe working environments. We will always be indebted to these students and their phenomenal work. They should not be indebted to Student Finance England for the pleasure of risking their lives in a pandemic. 

As the majority of students shift their life to adapt to working from home, our friends and colleagues from the school of health and medical sciences are adapting to a life of risk and heroism. The care, passion, and dedication of these students should not be regarded as a freakishly unexpected part of their studies, but rather an act of unprecedented valour.

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