Two years after being the first COVID-19 patient to receive critical care at The James Cook University Hospital, Friarage nurse Helen Sharpe is using her traumatic experience to enhance her patient care
Helen, who works in the Northallerton hospital’s Gara Ward, spent 21 days in James Cook’s intensive care unit.
During this time she recalls having vivid and frightening dreams which later left her with post-traumatic stress disorder following her discharge.
Whilst in intensive care Helen remembers the smallest of gestures were the biggest of comforts, something which she has incorporated more into her nursing since returning to work.
All the staff members were angels without wings. I think the way I talk and empathise with patients is different now to before I had COVID. I know how vulnerable I felt and how reassurance helped me. Just a touch on my arm meant the world to me, when you are terrified and vulnerable any bit of reassurance means so much. I feel more empathetic now."Helen Sharpe
Although Helen has returned to working at the Friarage it has been a long journey to get to where she is now and she still has a lot of ongoing symptoms to deal with, including nerve damage to her left foot and brain fog.
After being reunited with her husband and being discharged the first side effect she noticed, along with her voice being affected from the ventilator, was fatigue.
“The fatigue would be there from doing the smallest of tasks,” she said. “But, I was determined I was going to get stronger.
“I had physio in hospital and then community physio at home. I followed their instructions to strengthen my muscles and improve my mobility as I had to walk with two sticks.”
Despite the exhaustion and fatigue being hard to cope with Helen tried to achieve a goal each day to help increase her recovery.
One day she would walk to the end of her path and back again, and the next she would walk a little further and go to her neighbour’s gate.
Along with the support of James Cook’s long COVID clinic, and repeat CT scans and chest x-rays to check her level of lung scarring, Helen’s lung function started to improve.
She added: “Each day I would walk a little further. Because I struggled to sleep I used to be walking just as the sun was rising, I caught the most wonderful sunrises which I really began to appreciate.”
Determined to go back to work for her patients Helen started a slow phased return to the Friarage in March 2021 and, by the end of July she was up to her full time hours.
A new outlook on life
“I feel grateful for every day, I rarely get stressed,” she said. “I’m back with my Gara Ward family now; they are the most caring team I have ever worked with, with an outstanding ward manager.
“Looking back I realise the care and support I received was amazing.”
As well as adapting her nursing style Helen says she has been given a new outlook on life.
“I love to hear the birds singing which sounds so much better since I woke up from my ventilated sleep. The other thing I do is look at the stars and appreciate how gorgeous the night sky is. I still stand and look up and smile and count my lucky stars up there.”
She added: “I hope this encourages people to get their COVID vaccine to prevent them going through a horrific experience with life changing consequences.”