Sally Coman misses her dad’s cooking, his sense of humour. She misses her mum’s company and “being able to chat to her and vent my emotions”.
There have been no positive Covid-19 cases on the ward at Crumlin Children’s Hospital where Sally’s a nurse, but at the end of March she and older sister Rebecca, an agency nurse, decided to move out of the family home in Dublin’s Churchtown and into an apartment in Rathgar borrowed from a friend.
“My dad falls into a high-risk category. He has an underlying medical condition,” explains Sally, who was “very hesitant” when the idea of moving out of home was first mooted. “I lived in Australia for six months last year after finishing my nursing degree but I’ve never lived out of home in Ireland – somehow that felt like a bigger deal. I was worried I’d be lonely – I have a younger brother and sister at home who are both in college. And at that stage there hadn’t been any positives in Crumlin so I thought it’d be ok to stay home.”
But as the weeks progressed and “the severity of Covid-19 began to hit, numbers started rising and it came out that children could be asymptomatic but highly-contagious”, Sally felt less sure that she wouldn’t bring it home to her dad. “At that stage, I was happy to move – it was another stress, the thought that I’d be bringing Covid-19 home from work.”
Sally’s just one of thousands of Irish healthcare workers who fit the definition of superhero – the kind of superhero envisaged by two young brothers from North Dublin, Senan and Jonah Brady, aged five and seven respectively. In March, inspired by a competition posted on Keogh’s Farm Facebook page to “design something with potatoes” and “wanting to do something with superheroes”, the boys and their mum, Ruth, had a chat about who is a superhero.
“We talked about who is acting as a superhero at the moment. Who are the helpers? Between them, the boys came up with ‘the people who defeat the virus’. They listed the different people who are helping – nurses, ambulance drivers…” says Ruth.
The boys posted their picture of superhero potatoes on Facebook to share their message about frontline heroes, using the slogan ‘Not All Superheroes Wear Capes’. Keoghs decided to use the boys’ image as a catalyst for a campaign – IrelandThanksYou.ie to channel the nation’s big ‘Thank You’ to frontline workers in healthcare. The goal is to get 5,000 gift cards to the value of €100 to 5,000 frontline heroes in healthcare.
Another superhero is Aoife O’Connor, a fourth-year, final year nurse studying at Trinity College. She’s baffled and “can’t pinpoint” how she got Covid-19 one month after starting her internship on a private medical-oncology ward at St James Hospital. “I wasn’’t directly looking after Covid-positive patients but I was in my full PPE gear on the ward. I still picked it up.”
A dull constant headache towards the back of her head signalled the start of the virus on St Patrick’s Day. Headache was the worst symptom she endured – so bad one day she couldn’t get out of bed. “When I first got it I thought maybe I was just dehydrated. Next day I knew something was wrong – my body was really sore.” Aoife was tested and got the positive result next day. “It wasn’t really a shock but it wasn’t very pleasant to hear either. It was scary – I hadn’t heard of anyone in their 20s getting it.”
Over the following days, Aoife thought she was getting better only for the symptoms to then really begin kicking in. “It’s common in moderate cases for it to come back.” Due to return to work two weeks after she contracted Covid-19, she got re-tested on her manager’s advice. “I thought I was over it but I tested positive again and had to remain in isolation. It was a false positive – they believed it was dead virus that was in my body but because I still had headache they considered my case symptomatic, so I was unable to return to work.”
She’s back at work now – on a Covid-testing ward where people wait to hear if they’re positive. “Surprisingly, a lot are negative – you only get the rare person who turns out to have it.” It’s strange, she says, working on such a ward. “You just have to get on with it. St James has been completely transformed while I was off sick. The wards are so quiet while we just wait for results, it’s hard to explain, it’s a little haunting.”
As an intern working on a Covid-testing ward, Aoife wonders if she’ll get the wide-ranging exposure as a nurse that she could have expected in normal times. “My first placement was surgical. This one was supposed to be medical. We would have had good exposure to acute cases, so it’s a very different experience for those interns who are on testing or Covid-positive wards. As interns, we didn’t expect to be working in a pandemic. It’s not something you could prepare for.”
Getting Covid-19 has given her new appreciation for how challenging an illness it can be, especially for those with underlying conditions. “It was difficult for me, so what would it be like for them. I really wouldn’t want to get it again and I definitely don’t want to spend that much time in my room again!”
Aoife and Sally, along with so many thousands of frontline healthcare workers: superheroes who deserve all our gratitude.