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COVID, a year on: NHS Lothian’s ICU reflects on a mammoth year


Critical care teams who delivered vital lifesaving care to the sickest of patients throughout the COVID-19 pandemic say they believe there is light ahead.

Teams in the Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE) say the last 12 months had been some of the “toughest” they have ever endured.

But they are still optimistic that as the vaccination programme speeds through Scotland and the numbers of cases of COVID-19 fall because of lockdown, and continued adherence to the rules we are now all familiar with that they may be winning the battle against the virus.

They spoke out as they marked a year since the first patient in Scotland was treated for COVID-19 in NHS Lothian and took time to thank the public for sticking with the lockdown restrictions.

Professor Mike Gillies, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Critical Care and ICU Associate Medical Director and ICU Consultant, NHS Lothian, said: ” Our teams had to respond rapidly to an escalating situation, which saw large increases in critically unwell patients needing our care. Leaning on our knowledge, skills and expertise we had to learn about the illness, while we were treating patients, a situation which is never ideal.

“When a virus is seen in other parts of the world, we often feel so disconnected to it, but the reality is, with international travel and trade, viruses can easily and quickly spread.

“As soon as cases began to increase in Europe, it felt like only a matter of time before we would see cases here in the UK.

“A year on, we are still here, still caring for COVID patients, but on top of that we are also busy caring for all the patients who don’t have COVID as well.

“The increased numbers of patients that we have seen over this year, the additional measures that we have to undertake to keep our patients and ourselves safe and the fact that there hasn’t been a clear end in sight have all been really hard. Like everyone, we are tired of COVID.

“But we want to thank everyone for following the lockdown guidance and the measures that keep us all safe – wearing face coverings, keeping our distance and washing our hand often. You’ve been tremendous but it’s really important not to let your guard down now. Stick with it!.”

Since the first case was admitted into the Western General Hospital on March 1 2020, the ICU teams across Lothian have cared for hundreds of patients.

In the first days, a rapid programme of work was undertaken across NHS Lothian to prepare and respond to coronavirus.

COVID-19 testing facilities were introduced, new ways of accessing and delivering care and acute hospital sites were split into different zones to ensure that there were clear and separate areas for patients with Covid and those without to reduce and prevent further transmission.

Some scheduled surgery and procedures were scaled back to ensure teams had capacity to manage the increasing numbers of patients.

Stephen Walls, senior charge nurse, NHS Lothian, said: ” Caring for people is challenging, but it is the profession that we all chose and which we are passionate about. Often, we find that people don’t think about the NHS unless they, or their loved ones need us.

“When the pandemic hit, we suddenly found that we were front and centre of people’s minds.

“We hope that as the vaccination programme continues, and case numbers continue to fall, we will see fewer people needing ICU care because of COVID. We look forward to a time when we don’t need to wear PPE to care for patients, whenever that may be.

“COVID has undoubtedly changed each and every one of us, it has made us appreciate the little things in life, to recognise the importance of friends and family, and to see the value and support in those we work with every day.

“I hope the ICU team never have to face anything like this again, but if we did, I know we would face it with the same commitment, determination and compassion that has been shown over the last year.”