We know about the ICU staff putting their personal health on the line and working tirelessly trying to combat covid-19, but imagine if your specific job focused on the area of the body that is the gateway to contracting coronavirus.
As an ears, nose and throat speciality trainee at Raigmore Hospital Inverness, Dr Fergus Cooper is having to work on the absolute front of where the virus makes its way into and out of the body.
How people catch cornavirus
“Because the symptoms of the virus are ENT symptoms and because of the lack of testing we’re having to assume that everyone we see is covid positive until they are swabbed as negative.”
The coronavirus Q & A section of the World Health Organisation’s website explains how the virus enters the body.
“The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets.”
Working during the coronavirus pandemic
Dr Cooper immediately replies “yes” to my first question on whether he is treating covid affected patients.
“Because the symptoms of the virus are ENT symptoms we are treating everyone as suspected covid until they are tested. And because of the lack of testing we’re having to assume that everyone we see is covid positive until they are swabbed as negative.”
This means when Dr Cooper examines a patient, being stood inches away from his or her nose and mouth, he’s required to wear full PPE.
He goes quiet over the phone as he lists off what he has to wear in case he misses anything, then explains: “Thankfully we only have to wear it all for short periods of time and only when we’re physically seeing patients.”
Full PPE recommended for NHS staff treating coronavirus patients:
— Body length gown
— 2 layers of gloves
— Face visor
Dr Cooper describes what it’s like to work indoors in this mass of protective gear.
“If you have to wear the full PPE for more than ten minutes it gets very hot, claustrophobic, uncomfortable and sweaty, especially when you are doing a procedure. I was doing a ten minute procedure the other week and in that time I was very uncomfortable.”
Problems getting the right protective equipment
“I’m frustrated that, why would they advise me to wear a certain type of mask but then not have any in stock within a week?“
A topic of huge significance at the moment is the struggle to equip health service workers with the right protective gear so they can effectively help patients while protecting their personal health.
Dr Cooper described how he had to buy his own visor as the ones that were supplied by the government were flimsy, unable to be cleaned and had to be thrown away after a single use.
“Initially we had to buy our own visors online because there weren’t enough. We thought we would buy our own ones which we could wipe clean to save stocks of the disposable ones we were provided with.”
But it’s when we talk about masks that Dr Cooper describes the real problems with the situation.
“There are not any of the mask I got fitted for. So I have to be refitted for a face mask that has a seal.
“A couple of times I have turned up at department and they have not had the type of mask I need. If there’s no way of getting a mask that you have been fitted for then you just have to get the next best thing. But if I think it does not fit well I would refuse to see the patient until they had a properly fitting mask.”
I asked Dr Cooper what it was like working in these conditions and he explained to me the frustrating thing about it all is being told you have to wear a certain type of mask, but then not being provided with the right mask.
“I’m frustrated that, why would they advise me to wear a certain type of mask but then not have any in stock within a week? That is annoying but we have seen a big effort from other companies donating masks.”
You wouldn’t hold it against Dr Cooper if he was angry at the government, whose responsibility it is to organise the national health boards. Through lack of planning and austerity measures PPE stocks have been decimated. However Dr Cooper remains calm in the wake of this shortfall and trusts the government scientific panel are making the right decisions.
“All in all I think the response from the government has been good and I can understand the reasons behind their decisions. I have trust that the correct decisions are being made. They have a good advisory scientific panel and I think they’re doing what they can.”
A call to the front?
“Helping would essentially be being a part of history.”
Like so many staff Dr Cooper could be called to what is considered the ‘front line’ of the covid panedemic; the intensive care wards. Talks are constantly evolving within individual health boards about who is stepping up taking into account rise in cases and staff absences.
“I’m relishing the opportunity. Helping would essentially be being a part of history. If there comes a point where they are short of staff assisting with unwell covid patients then I will happily help there. I would feel apprehensive but I would accept this is what’s needed.”
“I like the idea of using science to help people.”
Dr Cooper did his medical studies at Aberdeen University in 2015. Now he’s three years into an eight year training scheme to become a consultant ENT surgeon. He’s worked at Royal Aberdeen Infirmary, Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital and Belford Hospital Fort William as well as doing work experience at Albyn Hospital.
His father is a gynaecology surgeon at Royal Aberdeen Infirmary and his mother has been a physiotherapist for over thirty years. When I asked her what she felt about her son and what he is doing right now she said she was extremely proud.
“I’m just extremely proud. His work is vitally important because people still need emergency ENT surgery. There’s still accidents and emergencies happening that will need his involvement. I just feel he’s doing what he’s being trained to do and I am very proud of him for doing it under the circumstances.”
Dr Cooper is remarkably mild mannered in the face of all the doom and gloom currently reported. While his work is complex and, at the moment dangerous, the reason he does it is simple.
“It sounds like a cliché but I like the idea of using science to help people.”
We desperately need that science right now.