Diary of a Doctor on the front line – chapter 1

As you’ll have probably read from the About page, Alex is an Infectious Disease Registrar at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. He’s also a Scientific Group Leader at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics where he specialises in looking at genetic susceptibility to certain diseases. As you already know, his focus right now is coronavirus.

Alex in scrubs

I’ve been recording his day-to-day events, thoughts and feelings for the past few weeks. The aim is to give insight into the wonderful work happening here in Oxford, not only by Alex, but by the amazing people at the hospital and university.

I hope it will make you appreciate what an fantastically diverse community we all are, and how well everyone pulls together, in synergy, to form an awesome team.

W/C 9th March 2020: It’s coming……

Alex has taken some annual leave this week, to write up his research paper that’s long overdue.

It’s been a crazy six months already. Since our family holiday last October half term, he’s not had longer than a two-day weekend off work. This includes Christmas, where he was in the hospital for 11 days straight for the third year running, along with a 13-hour shift on both Christmas day and New Year’s Eve.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t too impressed.

But instead of doing any of his write up or taking some much-needed rest, he goes into work to get organised and train staff for his new coronavirus research.

Whilst in the hospital on Monday 9th, he’s handed a bleep and gets stuck working on the wards until 6.30pm (for no pay).

For the rest of the week, the training goes ahead. It’s controversial and sensitive work because some of the cv patients are really sick.

The team will have to know how and when it’s right to approach and recruit them as well as the most efficient time to take samples. Fortunately, the team of nurses, lead by Sally, are very experienced and awesomely efficient. Alex seems really pleased.

Friday 13th March: There no stopping it now.

Today is our son’s 4th birthday. We were meant to be spending the day together, doing something fun. But Alex has back to back meetings with all the big research profs in Oxford, preparing for what’s to come.

But with lockdown in full swing in Italy now, we know what’s coming.

He makes it home for a glass of wine or two to toast the birthday boy.

Weekend 14th / 15th March

Eating Tapas

I drag Alex, kicking and screaming to a hotel in Wales. It’s our 15th Anniversary, and I’m determined he takes a break before the sh** hits the fan in the coming weeks. We manage a night away, a beautiful jog around the Brecon’s followed by a delicious meal with plenty of wine, but he’s still glued to his computer.

I know it’s probably the last proper time we’ll have alone for the next few months.

W/C 16th March 2020: It’s coming faster than expected….

This week Alex was meant to be in Florence for a conference, but as you’ll know, Italy is in full lock-down.

He uses the time to meet with various people in Oxford University to work out logistics;

How are they going to tackle this? What equipment is needed? What experiments will take place? Where will research samples go and how will they be looked after?

Friday 20th March

You may have seen it in the Oxford news and Times here. Today Alex’s team were the first in the country to recruit patients into the clinical trial.

This is massive. I’m not sure anyone, out of research, realises the red tape needed to get the go-ahead to do this. This includes ethics approval (which can often take months), the designing of the protocols not to mention the training of the team to facilitate the research.

Alex also talks with some of the first people in the country to have now recovered from corona virus.  

Insight into how people caught the disease, presented with symptoms and recovery time, is crucial in learning how to set guidelines and tackle this BEAST.

We can only learn from experience, as there’s no scientific evidence on this unknown virus. We must start somewhere, and that somewhere begins as a guessing game, trial and error and reflections from around the world and treatment of other similar viruses, and how they have been treated.

Sunday 22nd March – Stuck on Shotover

It’s Mother’s Day, and Alex kindly takes the kids out for a long bike ride and fresh air. But the tracks in Shotover have become muddy bogs, and they get stuck in the forest. There’s tears all round.

Monday 23rd March – Separate beds

Alex finds out he’s still full time on the clinical rota. This means he’s expected to be on duty on the John Warin Ward, treating patients with coronavirus every day. But his study is taking off, and as sick patients come in thick and fast to the hospital, research to find a cure for coronavirus has been a made a government priority.

I text him at 5pm to see how his day has gone.

The response,

‘Nuts. Friggin nuts x’

Being scheduled for two jobs at once is going to prove problematic.

Twelve hours a day on the wards, followed by training, meetings, troubleshooting and generally directing a new research team is physically impossible and certainly not sustainable.

But as Alex says,

‘The clinical team are so stretched there’s no choice right now’.

For the first few days he’s gets in early around 7.30am and finishing at around 9pm. Then he’s home, on the computer replying to over a hundred emails, sorting out research before finally falling into bed around midnight.

Not consciously, but we’ve started sleeping in separate beds. It feels like we’re living in completely different time zones. I’m going to sleep with the kids around 8.30pm and getting up in the early hours for some quiet time. Alex turns in between midnight and 6am, sometimes waking to answer calls in the night.

Perhaps it’s a good precaution for now. We want to minimise contact and the spread of germs. This way we both get as much undisturbed sleep as possible. After all, we need to stay healthy.

Tuesday 24th March – an early morning play session with our son

Our kids are missing daddy like crazy. So Alex spends some time in the early hours of the morning playing with our son.

Wednesday 25th March: a drive to Brighton

Alex drives to Brighton, to be there for 9am to take bloods from a recovered cv patient for analysis. He then drives back for meetings and work. He later finds out that he’s been taken off the day-to-day clinical rota, although he’ll still have to work on-calls and weekends. That’s a relief.

He comes home this evening at 8.30pm feeling overwhelmed. He comments that there’s probably been nothing like it since World War 2. It’s much worse in London.

The news shows the Excel centre is being taken over to provide a space to ventilate people. 70% of patients being admitted to hospitals with respiratory symptoms in East London hospitals have coronavirus. 

Alex says, the saddest part of all this, is that you can no longer comfort someone dying.

He’s realising how much he relies on contact. Holding a dying person’s hand so they’re not alone. A hand resting on a relative’s shoulder as he gives them bad news. Medical staff supporting each other through a particular bad day.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to maintain distance, but this leaves patients feeling completely on their own.

It’s heart-breaking for all involved – staff, patients and relatives.

Friday 27th March – Almost getting that Friday feeling…

It’s been on long slog for Alex this week. Working on the wards, setting up numerous research projects, driving round the country. Recruiting the first patients!

As the clap for our carers at 8pm last night proved, everyone is super impressed, thankful and proud of the wonderful job our NHS is doing.

I’m also grateful for our awesome community, rallying around and supporting everyone in need.

Alex buys his team lots of sweet treats to keep up moral. There’s still a long way to go, but a lot of positive steps have been made.

We all deserve a large quarentini tonight.

I’ll be posting Alex’s day to day ‘diary of a doctor’ regularly here. Please follow the blog for regular updates.

Published by carolinementzer

Caroline Mentzer is a Nutritional Therapist, Herbalist and Writer from Oxford, UK. Married to and Infectious Disease doctor, her blog discusses the benefits of combining holistic and conventional approaches to find unique solutions to many health and parenting challenges.

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