The stories of NHS staff tackling Covid at the Royal Free for two years

Sanjay Bhagani

Sanjay Bhagani, infectious disease consultant, appeared in BBC Hospital - Credit: Label1 production company

A Royal Free Hospital worker said she still has "not processed" the two years of the coronavirus pandemic.

On February 9, 2020, the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust admitted its first Covid-19 patient and staff have faced a physically and mentally exhausting challenge ever since.

Royal Free staff have cared for more than 7,400 patients with Covid-19 and have given more than 54,000 jabs to protect healthcare workers, patients and members of the public.

NHS staff and volunteers have spoken about their experiences.

Anatomical pathology technologist

Meritxell Miret Gonzales at the RFH mortuary

Meritxell Miret Gonzales at the Royal Free Hospital mortuary, before face coverings became mandatory - Credit: ©Hannah Maule-ffinch www.hannah

Meritxell Miret worked in the mortuary and often worked 18 hour shifts at the height of the pandemic.

She said: “I think the pandemic has affected me in ways I still haven’t processed yet but I know I did my best.

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"Early on I set up the ability for families to view their loved ones remotely when we weren’t allowing visiting and that is something we continue to offer.

"I just couldn’t bear the thought that someone might have come to hospital feeling relatively well, take a turn for the worse and their family would never have the opportunity to see them again.

“I remember how tired my colleague and I were, both physically and mentally.

"Sometimes I didn’t finish till 2am in the morning, only to return at 8am. We were coping with a volume of patients that we’d simply never experienced before.”

Infectious disease consultant

Sanjay Bhagani

Sanjay Bhagani, infectious disease consultant, appeared in BBC Hospital - Credit: Label1 production company

Dr Sanjay Bhagani said at the beginning of the first wave, a lot of time was spent just "getting to grips with the virus".

"As we moved into the first lockdown and the hospital went into ‘pandemic mode’, it was heart-warming to see healthcare professionals from different specialities come together as one huge team with the single aim of trying to save as many lives as possible," he said.

“Over subsequent waves, the situation has evolved and we are working hard to address other illnesses and delayed operations.

"Many of us are emotionally and physically exhausted and staff absences during the Omicron wave have added to this pressure.

"We need time to reflect and heal the NHS and all who work in it, and prepare for the next pandemic, be it another potent variant or another virus.”

Project Wingman

Caroline Clarke and Project Wingman

Caroline Clarke, Royal Free London group chief executive (right), with the Project Wingman team at the Royal Free Hospital - Credit: RFL

Caroline Clarke, RFL chief executive, said: "Project Wingman saw furloughed cabin crew and pilots volunteer their time to provide wellbeing support for NHS staff.

"This was a fantastic initiative, and just one example of the outpouring of support we have seen for our staff and colleagues across the NHS in the last two years," said Caroline.

"Our response to the challenge of Covid-19 has highlighted how dedicated and hardworking our staff truly are. I am so very proud of each and every one of them."

Senior clinical research nurse

Toluleyi Sobande during the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trials

Toluleyi Sobande during the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine research trials - Credit: RFL

Toluleyi Sobande was the senior nurse in charge during the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trials at the Pond Street hospital.

She said: "The pandemic hit us with a lot of uncertainty but at the very heart of finding a solution is research, she said.

"The delivery team worked together to develop a vaccine to give us immunity.

"This was a stressful time, but luckily we had a fantastic research team. In my view, every one of the four teams and each volunteer that took part in this study deserve an award.

“This was the first time I have ever witnessed group of people coming together from different specialities at such a short notice to produce outstanding work in such a highly efficient way.

"For me, this experience helped reduce the stress of upsetting daily news and I feel extremely blessed to have taken part."

Group chief nurse

StoneX - Julie Hamilton

Julie Hamilton (left) at the vaccination centre at Saracens' StoneX Stadium. - Credit: RFL

Julie Hamilton said she is "proud of everyone's efforts".

"In total, almost 90,000 vaccinations were delivered to members of the public at the RFL-run vaccination centre at Saracens’ StoneX Stadium," she said.

"Our vaccination teams have worked so hard to ensure a seamless experience for our staff and patients in the clinics and administer the jabs to as many people as they can."

The clinic is still open offering Covid and flu vaccinations.

"I would urge you to please get your COVID-19 and flu vaccines to boost your immunity," said Julie.

Consultant plastic surgeon

Nilesh Sojitra - first vaccinated at Royal Free Hospital

Consultant plastic surgeon Nilesh Sojitra was among first group to be vaccinated at Royal Free Hospital - Credit: RFL

Nilesh Sojitra said: “I was amongst the first group to receive my Covid-19 booster vaccine and flu jab in September 2021.

"Earlier on in the pandemic, I was also part of the Royal Free London vaccination team.

"We can help all get to the end of the pandemic by getting our vaccinations.”

Emergency care practitioner 

CFH testing pic with St John Ambulance

Tom Nettleton (right) from Chase Farm Hospital worked with St John Ambulance volunteers to deliver testing kits - Credit: RFL

Tom Nettleton worked on the first scheme in the country delivering home testing kits for vulnerable and isolated patients suspect of Covid – at a time when "everything was so new and unusual".

He said: "At Chase Farm Hospital, many staff were redeployed and there was an entire shift of our workload. In June 2020, we started working with St John Ambulance volunteers to deliver home testing for vulnerable and isolated patients who were suspected to have Covid-19 and were in need of life-saving support.

"It was amazing how the team supported us and gave up their time.”

Healthcare practitioner 

Rosamma Babu - Tottenham Hale

Rosamma Babu pushing the trolley at the Tottenham Hale dialysis unit - Credit: ©Hannah Maule-ffinch www.hannah

Rosamma Babu was a private carer before joining the NHS just before Covid hit.

She said: "I think it’s probably good that none of us knew how tough the pandemic would be and how long it has gone on for.

"Our patients are some of the most vulnerable and many lost their lives.

"I remember all their faces, even though I was relatively new you do build up a bond as the caregiver very quickly.

"It’s still not easy for me but I have to be here for other patients.

"When I’ve got time off from work I take pleasure in going for a walk – even if it’s just a bit of window-shopping. The fresh air relaxes me.”

Royal Free Charity volunteer

Rashmi Malde - BH charity volunteer

Barnet Hospital charity volunteer Rashmi Malde (right) - Credit: RFL

Rashmi Malde said: “The bravery, courage and sacrifice of all the frontline NHS staff and key workers inspired me to volunteer for the Royal Free Charity.

"I helped to make up boxes of goodies and care packages and deliver these to the wards.

"My reward was seeing huge smiles lighting up the faces of the NHS staff and their deep appreciation of the kindness and generosity of all the people who had donated to the charity during such uncertain and challenging times.”