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Life on the Frontlines of a ‘Nightmare’ Pandemic


For Callum Cox, the hardest part of working in United Kingdom hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic was consoling his intensive care unit patients’ distraught family members. Restricted from entering the hospital, loved ones received updates on a patient’s condition only through a daily text message and phone call. Horror stories on the evening news filled in the blanks. Only when a patient was dying was a single visitor allowed to risk infection to come say goodbye. “Patients had a tube in everywhere. Machines were beeping and screaming all day,” Cox, who worked three long nursing shifts per week this past spring, says. “Families didn’t know what was going on. They were scared.”

But when patients came off ventilators, Cox was there, cellphone in hand, ready to reunite families that had spent days, if not weeks, in distress.

Before the pandemic, it would’ve been inconceivable that Cox would be in such a position. He has been out of the hospital for the past two years, working as an application analyst for InterSystems to ensure that his team’s software supports clinicians. When COVID-19 struck, however, he and several other nurses employed by InterSystems heeded the call, faced their fears of infection, and ran to the frontlines when patients and fellow clinicians needed their expertise most.

Silvia Marzoli, an application analyst for InterSystems who previously spent nine years as an ICU nurse in Italy, recalls the moment she decided to return to the hospital. When she realized the magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak, she called former colleagues, who said they were floundering with limited personnel and resources. In two days, she had signed a contract to perform weekend shifts at a nearby hospital, on top of her day job. “I preferred to stay in than stay out of this situation,” Marzoli says.

Providing care was more challenging than usual. No one knew which treatment to use for the seriously ill, each patient required plenty of time, and patients kept coming in, she notes.

In the U.K., Cox and Andrew Seal, an InterSystems application analyst with 15 years of ICU nursing experience, remember sweating through layers of personal protective equipment. They rarely removed the gear, as masks and gloves were scarce. The equipment inflamed once-simple tasks, like speaking with a physician.

Seal, who considered the pandemic a “nightmare” and responded by taking two overnight ICU shifts per week, spent his first day caring for a patient of the same age, who had no comorbidities. COVID-19 had devastated the patient, making survival uncertain. Seal saw himself in that patient. “But in a few weeks, the patient was better,” the nurse says. “I played a part in getting the patient off the ventilator and getting them back on the way home. So that was a proud moment.”

Still, the frontlines were fraught with risk. Cox, who has a wife and two babies, partook in a grueling ritual to prevent infecting them. He woke up, showered, drove to work in clean clothes, placed them in a locker and donned his scrubs, and did his shift. Then he showered at the hospital, left the scrubs behind, wore his commuting clothes, and disinfected his car upon arriving home. Finally, he changed into new clothes in the yard and cleaned his personal items.

When the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations began waning in the U.K. and Italy, the three InterSystems employees returned to their typical routines. But will they charge the frontlines if the pandemic calls for it? “Oh, yeah,” Marzoli says, “if they need us again.”

This story originally appeared the July 20, 2020- OnTrak News Flash No.5: The Fight Against COVID-19 newsletter

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