Coronavirus: 'I had to leave my son to help save lives'

By Michael McBride
BBC News NI

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image copyrightCatherine Kealey
image captionCatherine and her son reading through window

People across Northern Ireland and around the world are limiting their contact with others and remaining indoors with their families.

But for some frontline healthcare workers, that is no longer a viable option.

That is because the fear of infecting their loved ones with coronavirus has forced them to move out of the family home.

Catherine Kealey is a staff nurse at the intensive care unit (ICU) in Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry.

She has taken the difficult decision to physically distance herself from her seven-year-old son Fiontán .

She feels that because of her increased likelihood of exposure to the virus, she can no longer have any physical contact with her only child.

“I never thought in a million years that I couldn’t be able to spend time with my son because of my job,” she told BBC News NI.

Catherine took the decision a number of weeks ago to ask her sister to become Fiontán’s full-time carer and, since then, she has stopped all physical contact with him.

She now shares a house with another sister, who is also a nurse at the hospital.

Catherine described the conversation she had with her seven-year-old as “tough”.

“Fiontán had somewhat of an understanding of the coronavirus due to his school closing and knew that his mum needs to be away for a while,” she said.

'I couldn't not help'

Their only contact now are twice-daily appearances at her sister’s porch window, where Catherine helps Fiontán with his school work.

“He understands I have an important role to play in helping to save people’s lives,” the ICU nurse said.

But she admitted that some days are harder than others.

On Mother’s Day, she worked a 12-hour-shift. After work, she called to see her son through the window - no contact, they just pressed their hands together up against the pane of the glass.

Difficult as it is, Catherine has accepted the current situation.

“I couldn’t just stay at home with him and not help, I could never just stay indoors and know that I could possibly be at the hospital helping to save lives,” she said.

image copyrightSinead Hawkins, Zoe Black and Emma Bell
image captionZoe Black, Sinead Hawkins and Emma Bell moved away from their parents to try to protect them

Emma Bell also chose to physically distance herself from her immediate family.

The Ulster Hospital nurse moved out of her parents' house and into an apartment with two other nurses from the emergency department.

All three wanted to protect their parents who have underlying health conditions.

“I’m quite highly exposed to patients presenting with Covid-19 symptoms and the thought of potentially taking that home had me not sleeping at night,” she explained.

“There was a lot of talk among the staff at the hospital about moving out and the three of us kind of just looked at each other and got hunting for somewhere to stay,” she told BBC News NI.

'Next best thing'

Emma said she and her new housemates get on well, but there are times when a parent’s comforting embrace is very much missed.

“They're great, but it's just not the same as a hug from your mum, or your dad pulling funny faces to cheer you up.”

However, Emma believes her new housemates are the “next best thing” to her family support system after a difficult day at work.

“It’s great coming home at the end of a bad day knowing that they both know exactly how it feels.

“We can usually gauge whether to ask how each other’s days have been or to just stick the TV on and make them a cup of tea."

“But no storm lasts forever, that rainbow is always there at the end,” she added.

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