On the frontline since the first case... I've seen first-hand the devastation Covid can cause

Dr Corinna Sadlier, Infectious Disease Consultant at CUH tells EMMA CONNOLLY about how she and her colleagues all pulled together in 2020. This feature appeared in WoW!'s special edition dedicated to Cork's female healthcare workers
On the frontline since the first case... I've seen first-hand the devastation Covid can cause

Dr Corinna Sadlier, Consultant in Infectious Diseases at Cork University Hospital, Dr. Owen O’Flynn, a 23 year old Trainee Doctor who spent time in CUH ICU as a patient with Covid-19 and Dr. Ivan Hayes, Consultant Intensivist and Critical Care Director at CUH. Picture: Gerard McCarthy

THE efforts of the community and the work of Public Health is really what saved lives and protected the health service from being completely overwhelmed by Covid-19.

And realistically, with infection numbers likely to increase after Christmas, the same will be asked of them again.

That’s according to Dr Corinna Sadlier, Infectious Disease Consultant at CUH, who has been on the frontline in the acute hospital since the first case of the virus was identified there.

Corinna admitted that working in such an environment was ‘surreal at times,’ but that their focus was always about controlling what they could control, and pulling together to provide the best care possible for patients.

The biggest heroes, in her opinion, were individual patients and their families as well as community efforts, with people staying at home and buying into the government restrictions.

Casting her mind right back to the start of the year though, Corinna remembers how in January, herself and colleagues, like everyone else, watched the situation unfold internationally and cautiously hoped that the spread of the virus could be contained.

“But very quickly it became apparent that it was evolving into something much bigger,” she remembers.

Crisis planning meetings were held in CUH from late January, and things snowballed quickly, with the first case identified in CUH at the start of March.

“I can recall that vividly. Up to that point there was still some hope of containing the virus. Six cases identified nationally had all related to travel or epidemiological exposure, but the case in CUH confirmed the spread of Covid at a community level.

“Things escalated quickly from there, we all know where the curve went, and it was apparent then that the government needed to introduce restrictions.”

The following months were very difficult for everyone in healthcare, she recalled. Covid added another level of pressure and stress to a health system that was already overstretched and running beyond capacity.

Staff across all grades and departments in the hospital pulled together, working extra hours and extra days, constantly having to put on and off PPE to provide the best care possible in very challenging circumstances.

“I have seen first-hand the devastation Covid can cause for patients and their families. It’s not an infection any of us would like to get.

“The fear of infection or transmitting Covid to family and friends is something most of us in healthcare have experienced — healthcare workers are not bulletproof.”

That said, safety of staff was a major focus in CUH and supply of appropriate PPE was maintained at all times, with additional stock sourced through local suppliers.

Constant vigilance was required around infection prevention but ultimately, she said, “this is what we are trained to do”. Time and time again, she stressed how she felt very supported and enabled to do her job.

She also said she felt really proud to work alongside colleagues across all departments, from nursing, cleaning, portering, catering, allied health professionals and doctors in training, all of whom went above and beyond for patients and their families.

“We all had a clear goal, and I felt a real collegiality at this time, which was very reassuring.”

Corinna admits that, 10 months on, they still don’t have any good treatments for Covid, but what they do have is clinical experience.

“We’re more familiar with it and we know what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

“Research is what informs our clinical practice and we have been hugely supported by colleagues in University College Cork, and the on-site HRB-clinical research facility to enrol patients in clinical trials and to gain further knowledge around presentation, transmission and outcome of this infection.”

As Covid numbers dropped significantly following the first wave, and when the hospital’s original Covid ward was ‘stood down’ in May, it marked a real milestone for Corinna.

“There was a real moment that we had come through it. Similarly, seeing patients who’d had long, isolating admissions, being discharged, really made the job worthwhile and then seeing them back in the clinic, and getting back to life was great,” she said.

Noteworthy, among patients who have been discharged, is a lot of post- traumatic anxiety and issues with fatigue.

There were also lots of low points.

“Having to make calls to families to tell them their loved ones had deteriorated or weren’t going to make it, having really difficult conversations in full PPE, which was so impersonal. Delivering bad news is part of our job but with Covid a whole layer of human empathy and connection is removed.

“Isolation and PPE made it particularly hard to care for people approaching end of life and their families. While staff did their best in the circumstances, it’s not the usual compassionate care you’d like to deliver.”

Originally from Limerick, Corinna is married to Eric, a psychiatrist from Cork, and they have four kids aged from nine to two. A wonderful childminder helped them during their longer working hours. She describes her kids as being resilient, like all kids, but they were certainly glad to be back to school.

Walks with her dog Charlie, and her 10 minute cycle to work most days helped with head space.

Corinna is fully aware that Covid will be part of her work for some time to come, but it doesn’t faze her.

“It’s how things are now, and how they’ll continue to be next year or more until a large proportion of the worldwide population is vaccinated.

“Realistically, it will be part of the health service for at least the next 12 months. We’ve adjusted to it though, and the second wave showed this when non-Covid scheduled health-care continued.”

She’s planning a quiet Christmas in Cork and will be keeping her contacts to a minimum.

Naturally, she’ll be keeping an eye on Covid case numbers, but she is hoping to visit to see her parents in Limerick, who she hasn’t seen since August.

“But that’s what it’s been like for a lot of people,” she said.

What’s her advice to the public for the festive season?

“The public deserves a nice Christmas but it’s up to individuals to judge risks for themselves.

“We know how to minimise risk to ourselves, our families and our friends and to avoid infection. People need to be responsible.

“Our actions over the Christmas period will influence a potential third wave in January.

“With the positive news of a vaccine on the horizon, a third wave is something we should look to avoid altogether.”

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