EMERGENCY services worker Ger O’Dea said he gained two stone in weight and suffered from gout during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, due to the high pressure and unhealthy lifestyle he adopted as part of the frontline response to the ongoing health crisis.
Ger, 39, originally of Bishopstown, but living in Castlelyons, is the community engagement officer for Dublin and North Leinster and has two young daughters, Lilly, nine, and Katie, seven, here in Cork.
The paramedic, who is serving his 15th year in the National Ambulance Service (NAS), said that for the first lockdown in March he went five weeks without close contact with his children, which he found extremely tough.
“Normally, there is not a week that goes by without a hug or a kiss or a cuddle with my girls. Because my job is high risk, on the frontline, and Lilly is special needs, she would be susceptible to infection
“It was a tough decision to let the girls stay with their mom full time for the first lockdown. Thank god for Zoom and Facetime.
“I bought Katie a phone so we could have the chats. As nice as it was, she would still get upset when she had to hang up the phone. That was very mentally draining.”
Ger said he was working very long hours during the first lockdown and found himself choosing a diet of takeaways and high-calorie foods which affected his health.
“For the first time in my life, I got gout, which is basically from eating too much rich foods. I would normally be eating salads and stir-fries.”
The emergency services worker said although there was an ongoing campaign in supermarkets to allow healthcare workers skip the queue, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“I didn’t have time to queue and I couldn’t jump the queue. It just wasn’t something I was comfortable doing. It wasn’t in my personality.”
Between the change in nutrition and lack of exercise, Ger said he gained two stone.
“I used to run a lot, I would always be training for something, a 5km, 10km, half or full marathons. I didn’t have time to run and I lost the health benefit of that, the headspace that you get from it.
“I used to run in the morning before work and it would set me up for the day. I would be in good form after it, but it wasn’t possible.
“We were so busy, there was no time for ourselves. We were dedicated to the job. It was full-on testing. All the frontline services were flat out.”
Ger said they were assisting Community Health Organisations (CHO) setting up static health sites and manning static test sites.
Thankfully now, thanks to the multi-agency response, there are public health swabbers helping out which has spread the work, taking a little of the pressure off the NAS.
Discussing the pandemic, Ger said it completely changed the NAS work practice.
“Normally, the instinct is to grab the kit bag and help. Now we were stopping to put on PPE. It was totally foreign to us. It was like a barrier slowing us down.
“Now we are familiar with the process and procedures from wave one. We are still out there swabbing and community testing but it is a little bit easier.”
Although he is more used to the processes, Ger said it is difficult.
“Covid has taken away the human element, the hand on the shoulder, it’s all gone. It’s a very sterile environment now. The whole personal thing, the shake of the hand, even the smile is hidden behind PPE. It’s all gone. It’s the opposite of everything we stand for.
For his own family, Ger said there were challenges.
“With Lilly, there were some behavioural changes, her mom was telling me. She is non-verbal and she expressed things in her own way, but it was hard, because we didn’t know what she was going through. Her whole routine was changed.”
Ger said between shifts he would drive down and have the chats with his little girls through the window. “I was working seven days a week, it was very mentally demanding. I was working first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Staying in hotels and eating takeaways.
“We were totally focused on the job. We ate when we could, there was no time for exercise, we were under immense pressure. Everyone was the same, everyone was going above and beyond.”
After the first lockdown, Ger said things eased and everyone accepted Covid was a part of life.
Chatting about what he missed from life pre-Covid, Ger said he missed nights out and said the lack of fund-raising for local charities was a huge loss to the local community.
“Socialising was a big part of everyone’s life. We used to have emergency services nights out, with the guards and fire service. They were great.”
Ger said the fact that fund-raising events have to be cancelled has affected so many people. “I would have been very active in those things.”
In his own personal life, Ger said he finds it hard that he can’t take the kids to monkey mazes or playgrounds.
“It’s the simple pleasures I miss. Being able to go to a restaurant and sit down, order some food and a drink.
“Now everything is on a clock, the good is gone out the window. It has stripped away the personality.”
Ger said now that things have calmed down a little bit, he is getting back into running and exercise.
“I’m mindful of the weight gain and taking it slow. I have a spin bike that I use at home and am out walking and trail running when possible. I can see the benefit already.”
Ger said he felt a weight lifted off his shoulders and a release of pressure from the exercise.
“I’m less irritable and not as on edge. It’s simple things that you would normally laugh at, you get annoyed and take offence due to stress. It shows you eating well and getting exercise is very important.”