Mental health student nurse James Savage talks about working through the pandemic, getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and staying positive in difficult times

Before becoming a student nurse, I was a senior health care assistant in a nursing home near where I’m from in Northern Ireland. I was back working there over the university holidays when the pandemic broke out in February last year.
 
We had a large outbreak there. Like in a lot of care homes, I imagine, it all happened so quickly, before we were set up to manage the situation, before we’d had any real information or training. It wasn’t as well supported as hospitals were.
 
By March, I’d caught COVID. But luckily, I didn’t have it too severely and was able to get back to work as soon as I was no longer infectious.

In a care home, you are the frontline and have to do everything yourself

It was a tough experience, dealing with such an unprecedented situation. We were quite isolated at the beginning and having to deal with all aspects of care ourselves. When you’re working in acute care, if a patient has physical needs, you’d transfer them to a medical unit usually. In a care home, you are the frontline and have to do everything yourself, but without the same support or equipment.
 
We lost quite a lot of patients and in April I also lost my grandma.
 
In a strange way though, that experience really helped me to empathise and connect with people at this tragic time. When I had to call family members to let them know their husband or mum or brother was ill or had passed away, I think it offered some solace for them to know that I truly understood how they were feeling.

Balancing student life

When the government offered paid clinical placements to nursing students to support the nursing workforce, I went to work on an acute mental health ward in Liverpool, where I study. 

Personally, I got a lot out of the experience. I was on a great ward with a very supportive manager – but I know it wasn’t the same for every student.

The real difficulty was trying to fit in all the academic work

The real difficulty was trying to fit in all the academic work at the same time. I think we were all under the impression that studying would be significantly reduced, but it wasn’t in my experience.
 
I generally try to see the positive in everything, but during the pandemic there have been times when I come home and just can’t switch off. It’s even harder when you’ve had a long shift and then have an essay to do. Also adapting to online learning and trying to get group work done efficiently over Zoom with people on different work or placement schedules has been almost impossible at times.

Even though you can’t go out or de-stress like you would have before, I have been trying to make the most of the spare time I do have to talk to a friend, or go for a walk, or watch something on TV. 

I generally try to see the positive in everything, but during the pandemic there have been times I just can’t switch off

The vaccine: a path towards recovery

I went back to work at the nursing home over Christmas – I’m their resident Santa Claus – which meant I was offered the COVID-19 vaccine early on. I didn’t hesitate to have it; I was just happy it was available to me. Witnessing so many COVID-related deaths and having to make those hard phone calls to families – and then losing a family member myself, there was no doubt in my mind that these vaccines are necessary and it’s the best path out of this pandemic.
 
Some of the people who deny COVID and spread misinformation would very quickly change their minds if they saw first-hand what we have seen.

Student nurse James getting COVID-19 vaccine

James getting the COVID-19 vaccine

I know a new vaccine can cause apprehension though. What I would say to any student nurse feeling unsure is to inform yourself using reliable sources. There’s so much going around on social media, but that’s not where we should be getting our facts from. Go on the NHS website, speak to your GP or the vaccine team in your trust. 

There's no doubt in my mind that these vaccines are necessary

We have a responsibility as student nurses to get the right information, make an informed choice and ensure we’re not spreading any misinformation to the people who trust in us.

Looking to the future

Being an RCN student ambassador gave me the chance to see first-hand what the RCN Students Committee has been doing to help students and I was really happy to be elected to the committee recently, representing the north west region.
 
I’m feeling hopeful for the future and am looking forward to using my new committee role to help make improvements for students in the long term, like working on the Fair Pay For Nursing campaign, for example.
 
This has been a challenging year and it can be easy to feel dismayed at times, especially when you’re losing patients. But you have to adapt as a nurse; I hope we won’t meet anything of this magnitude again any time soon, but there will always be some challenges. And if we can get through this, then what can stop us? 

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