A Middlesbrough head teacher believes that an innovative ‘virtual ward’ programme at South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust helped to save her life when she contracted COVID pneumonia.
The virtual ward gives COVID-19 patients the opportunity to be discharged from hospital early, where their oxygen levels can be monitored remotely from the comfort of their own home.
Patients are loaned a pulse oximeter – a small non-invasive device which clips on a finger – which allows patients to monitor and report their oxygen levels to the respiratory team at the trust during regular telephone calls.
Julia Rodwell, 51, who was discharged to the trust’s virtual ward after being treated at The James Cook University Hospital, said: “I believe I owe my life to James Cook and in particular, the role the virtual ward played in looking after me. I could never thank them enough. The foresight and ingenuity in setting up such a system is commendable and should be recognised on a national level.”
Julia started to feel unwell during the Christmas holidays. She had a high temperature and, against her natural instincts, called NHS 111 for advice.
“As a typical, relatively fit and active 50-year-old female with no underlying health conditions, I have never telephoned 111 or called an ambulance,” she said.
“I’m one of those people who just ‘get on with things’. You don’t like to be a nuisance but as I had a one of the symptoms of COVID I called NHS 111.”
On the advice of NHS 111 Julia was told to go to The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough to be checked over.
After being examined by clinicians, Julia was identified as being suitable for referral to the virtual ward, a pilot scheme being run by the trust for patients admitted to hospital and diagnosed with COVID-19.
Dr Ramamurthy Sathyamurthy, consultant in respiratory medicine at the trust, said: “This innovative scheme enables clinicians to discharge patients home early, allowing the patient to be at home with the confidence that they are being monitored remotely and supported by the respiratory nursing team. And often, allowing the patient to be at home and out of the hospital environment will improve their mental wellbeing.
“COVID-19 infection can produce low oxygen without the usual breathlessness symptoms and this remote monitoring will pick up deterioration earlier, facilitating readmission and treatment at an earlier stage if needed.
“It’s important to stress that it is not for all patients with COVID-19, but those identified as suitable by clinicians will be referred to the virtual ward.
“Respiratory nurses teach the patient how to use the oximeter and how to record the readings.
“Once we’re satisfied they are able to self-monitor, the patient is given an oximeter and re-sealable envelope with return address, along with an advice leaflet, when they are discharged from hospital. The patients are then transferred home to isolate and begin self-monitoring.
“The nurses ring the patient on designated days to discuss their progress and advise on further actions. The patient is also given a telephone number call in case of deterioration for support and advice.”
Julia said: “I was under the care of the virtual ward and I was provided with a pulse oximeter to measure my heart rate and my blood oxygen levels (SpO2).
“After being discharged from hospital I was sitting at home not feeling well with my SpO2 level measuring 84-86 when Janet, the respiratory nurse at the trust, telephoned to do her daily monitoring.
“I told her I felt dreadful and gave her the readings from my oximeter. With her knowledge, training and skills Janet explained that she had made the decision to send an ambulance.”
Julia was admitted to James Cook with a temperature of 39.8 degrees Celsius and was diagnosed with COVID pneumonia. After several days, due to low SpO2 levels, she was placed on CPAP ventilation and her care was overseen by ICU consultants.
Julia said: “The consultants were amazing! As you can imagine, it was a really scary time. They were so kind and caring and they attended the ward daily to ensure CPAP patients did not require further intervention. The treatment and care I received at James Cook was five star.”
Julia remained in hospital for ten days before thankfully being well enough to go home.
Julia believes that if it wasn’t for the intervention of the virtual ward, things could have been a lot worse for her – with possibly tragic consequences.
She said: “On reflection, I am relieved that I was under the care of the virtual ward and received that telephone call from Janet. If not, I may have just stayed at home until it was too late to be treated effectively or may have just deteriorated and died, without recognising the need for help. It just goes to show the system works. Janet was able to identify that I needed help and got me brought in.”
Fast forward a few weeks and Julia’s on the road to recovery. She’s back working at her school but is still feeling the effects of COVID-19. She said: “I feel much better now but I still struggle to catch my breath a little, although I can see that I am making gradual improvements.
“I would like to thank the NHS, the virtual ward and Janet for their amazing work.”