Coronavirus: NI public can 'be heroes and save lives'

By Sara Girvin
BBC News NI north east reporter

  • Published
Media caption,
Dr Sean McGovern said that the Ulster hospital had more than doubled its ventilator capacity.

A senior doctor in charge of one of NI's busiest emergency departments has said the public can "be heroes, and save lives” by following restrictions to public life.

Dr Sean McGovern, from the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, is a consultant in emergency medicine.

He said the mood in his department is one of "quiet anticipation of what’s ahead".

There have been 22 coronavirus-related deaths so far in Northern Ireland.

Dr McGovern added that while they are seeing patients who have coronavirus, normal business has been reduced by nearly 50%.

“That gives an opportunity to train, to prepare and to anticipate what lies ahead," he said.

“What we think from what the graphs indicate, we’re going to have a significant amount of people presenting with respiratory distress and they will need oxygen support.

“This is everyone’s opportunity to be a hero and save a life. We all know people who are vulnerable and therefore it’s your opportunity to save their life by staying in, staying safe, and staying calm.”

In terms of hospital beds and ventilators available, Dr McGovern said they are looking at what has been happening in Italy.

"I’m not suggesting for a moment that’s going to be our experience, but we know the numbers of patients are going to increase significantly," he said.

He added that officials had "maximised our ventilator capacity" in anticipation of the surge, and that it had required "difficult decisions on how we structure our healthcare, but it's for the best".

“This is about the maximum time to save the maximum number of lives.”

Dr McGovern said people with Covid-19 were presenting at hospital with different symptoms.

“It is a silent disease,” he said. “We have a whole spectrum of patients."

He added: “People present with great difficulty breathing and low oxygen.

“There will be atypical presentations, people may present with confusion because their oxygen level is low.

“We’ve had a number of people who have presented with marked confusion and they’ve turned out to have a brain infection – we’ve also had people present with abdominal pain.

“The majority of patients will present with fever, sore throat and shortness of breath but there are atypical presentations.

“We all need to be mindful and stay safe.”

Dr McGovern said he is “satisfied” with the level of personal protection equipment (PPE) currently available for his staff.

Lynne Harbinson, a ward sister at the Ulster Hospital, said her staff are “very busy”.

“When we got our first suspected Covid patient into the ward it was very stressful because we just didn’t know what to expect.

“For the patients, I suspect it’s very scary for them,” she said.

Image source, Getty Images

“They’re seeing nurses in a lot of protective gear and they’re not well.

“The whole hospital has restructured itself, we’re all coming together as a team and I’m very proud to be working in the Ulster Hospital."

Fellow ward sister Helen Dougan said it has been "tough".

“This is completely unknown to all of us and we’re all learning. We all had our fears and anxieties and we had so much to learn so quickly.

“The staff all changed their shifts, came in to work, learnt new skills, just did whatever they could do to make it work, they’ve been amazing.”

Ms Dougan said her nurses are doing shifts with no kettle, toaster or fridge available - and, so, have no way to prepare food.

She said staff are “very thankful” to people who have sent in meals and snacks.

'We feel vulnerable'

“We’ve all got families at home, I have three young children, and the realities are that you’re concerned for your staff, you’re concerned for the patients... you’re here for the families and you can’t even comfort them because they can’t see their relatives.

“You go home and have a day off but it’s not really a day off. It’s a day to turn around before the next one comes.”

She added that there were “a lot of tears” last Thursday when households across the UK stood on their doorsteps and balconies to applaud NHS workers.

“We feel vulnerable,” she said.

“To a certain extent we feel like we’re fighting a war and that we’re on our own, so it’s good to hear that the public do support us and do understand.

“We anticipate a greater need for PPE and therefore it is appropriate to use the high-end stuff as proportionally as we can now so that we don’t exhaust supplies."

On how his staff are dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak, Dr McGovern said: “I think there’s a confidence and resolution like I’ve never seen before.

“I’ve had the privilege of working for 30 years in the health service and I’ve never seen a coming together like this before across all healthcare sectors.

“I’m confident we will get through this by everybody pulling together.

“We’ve got to stay calm – more easily said than done. We’ve got to stay in, and we’ve got to stay confident and resolute that we will pull through this if we all play our part.”