From choosing which dying patients’ hands to hold to penning ‘final letters’ to our kids – life on the NHS front line – The Sun

EXHAUSTED doctor Kiran Rahim felt her heart break beneath her scrubs as she desperately battled to save her colleague's life in intensive care. 

Her shift had ended more than an hour ago – yet she refused to go home, unwilling to accept that coronavirus was about to kill another member of her NHS family.

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"It was really sad because we knew he wasn't going to survive," Kiran, 33, tells Sun Online.

"None of us could walk away from that situation. We were there about 90 minutes after we should have been, battling to save him, because it was really hard to let go."

The mum of two, from London, features in a new, self-filmed Channel 4 documentary that follows our NHS heroes as they fight on the Covid-19 frontline across Britain.

It's like having a terrorist attack on your hospital doorstep twice a day, every day, for weeks and months

The programme, captured on the medics' smartphones, reveals the harrowing reality of life on the Covid battlefield – from "powerless" doctors forced to watch young patients suffer slow deaths to tearful nurses having to choose whose hand to hold and who dies alone.

"The analogy I take is it's like having a terrorist attack on your hospital doorstep twice a day, every day, for weeks and months," says London-based consultant Rony Berrebi.

Rony, 38, adds: "Sometimes we have young people, really healthy – probably healthier than me – and we just see them go downhill, slowly dying, and there's nothing we can do.

"We just look at them powerless.

Doctors penning 'final' letters to kids

This 'attack' has struck at home, too: doctors and nurses fear they will infect their loved ones, while some have penned letters for their children in case they die in the line of duty.

"I wondered whether I should write the kids a letter to open on their 18th birthday if something happened," says maternity consultant and dad-of-three Ed Coates, 39, from Bath.

"Should I be writing a letter to them to say how much I love them?"

He adds: "I actually looked up how to write my will, which is a slightly chilling thing to do at 39."

'We've never seen anything like it'

For NHS workers up and down the UK, the coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented threat.

The deadly virus has already killed more than 28,000 Brits and forced the country to go into lockdown, pushing us into the biggest economic slowdown on record.

"Seeing a lot of people die, putting people on breathing machines, that's not a new thing, we are used to that," says Rony, who has worked in ITU [intensive care] for 15 years.

"But I can safely say that none of us has ever seen anything like it."

Shocking volume of deaths

Kiran, a paediatric registrar currently redeployed in ITU, agrees.

While she's used to treating sick and dying children, she says she wasn't prepared for the "volume of death" she's witnessed among adult Covid patients in recent weeks.

"Generally speaking, children don't die that often, thankfully, in this country," she tells us.

"And if they do it's usually a really well-supported death and it's quite a pleasant death for the families – and I don't think anything about this pandemic has been pleasant for anyone.

"Definitely not for the families who have lost their loved ones."

Kiran – who has spent years treating children "on the brinks of death" – is used to sitting down with worried families for hours, guiding them through what is often their worst nightmare.

But during the pandemic, she says, communication has changed.

"Families are not allowed in for their own protection, so communication has been difficult – it's been behind masks and gloves and five layers of PPE," she tells us.

Communication with families has been difficult – it's been behind masks and gloves and five layers of PPE

During her long, exhausting shifts in ITU, Kiran supports nursing staff by cleaning patients, brushing their teeth, preparing their medication and even shaving their faces.

"You form a very natural bond because you look after this person – I hate just thinking of them as patients, they're people," says the married paediatrician, who has two young sons.

"When you speak to their families, you get an idea of what kind of life they had outside hospital. It's really harrowing to sit down and think how much has changed in such a short time."

She also helps with 'proning' – turning patients on to their fronts to try to improve oxygenation.

"It's a last stop before everything else really fails," she explains.

Tragically, even proning doesn't save the sickest patients.

"Sadly, most of the patients I've looked after haven't lived," says Kiran.

"And that's really hard to accept."

Most of the patients I've looked after haven't lived… and that's really hard to accept

She adds of co-workers' deaths: "I have lost colleagues before – just not like this. They've either taken their own life or had cancer or a bleed in the brain, it's all been very sudden.

"It's not been sort of this slow demise."

Due to coronavirus guidelines, family members can't be at loved ones' bedsides, meaning frontline medics are taking on the roles of both relative and carer in isolation wards.

Sometimes, they are the only ones present when a patient dies.

Forced to choose between dying patients

Team leader Luke Sumner, who also features in tonight's NHS Heroes: Fighting to Save Our Lives documentary, describes the torment of having to choose between dying patients who to comfort.

The 39-year-old, who is in charge of 20 nurses in Blackpool, says: "Just a couple of days ago, I was torn between two patients and didn't know which one to sit with as they passed away.

"One gentleman had family that we were in contact with – we managed to connect his daughter up to an iPad so she could be with him as such while he passed away. So in between curtains, I was sat at one gentleman's bed with no relatives whatsoever holding his hand."

'I filled my goggles with tears'

He continues: "I decided to just tell him how peaceful everything has become, there's no cars on the roads, I was just telling him how much nicer the world is now.

"Through the curtains all I can hear is this gent's daughter saying, 'It's alright dad, you're going to be up in Heaven with mum again soon, she's there waiting for you'.

"I pretty much filled my goggles with tears."

Luke adds that the pandemic has wreaked so much devastation that recently, for the first time, he didn't feel like going outside for the NHS clap. "I knew I'd just cry," he says.

Heartbreaking phone calls

When a patient is dying from Covid, doctors call their family with the news.

Dr Leigh-Anne Hill, 32, who has also been redeployed to an "exclusively Covid" ward in London, weeps in the documentary as she recalls being asked whether her patients are "scared".

"I feel like all I can offer really is to tell their relatives that they're not on their own," she says.

"I'm with them."

In such tragic circumstances, one relative is usually allowed to visit the ward. But they then have to self-isolate for two weeks, potentially leaving them unable to attend their loved one's funeral.

"I don't know how you would arrange a funeral and not then be part of it," adds Leigh-Anne.

"I don't know how families are dealing from that."

CEO's anguish

The coronavirus death toll is affecting people in all roles in the NHS.

Caroline Shaw, chief executive of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, Norfolk, says she'll never forget the day she was told a healthcare assistant, Chrissie Emerson, had died.

"When Chrissie passed away the usage of our protective equipment went up double," she recalls.

"I was not going to challenge people for inappropriate use the day one of our colleagues died.

"I just wouldn't have done it."

She adds of the pandemic: "This is a marathon – it's going to go on for a long time.

"It's not going to finish overnight."

But it's a marathon our brave NHS heroes have vowed to keep running.

Senior nurse practitioner Nathan Aycee, 34, from Birmingham, says: "Every day that passes is another day closer to victory. I keep saying we're definitely going to beat this thing."

And Luke adds: "We've got to go headfirst into this and we've got to tackle it.

"We won't be beaten by this. We won't stop. We won't give up."

  • NHS Heroes: Fighting to Save Our Lives airs tonight (Wednesday, May 6) at 9pm on Channel 4


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