The effect of coronavirus and lockdown on the life of a doctor

Ben and Lauren Allen

Ben and Lauren Allen - Credit: Archant

Cheshire Life journalist Lauren Allen and her husband Ben, a doctor on a Covid-19 ward at Wirral’s Arrowe Park Hospital, talk about the fears and joys of the unexpected newlywed life they are living.

Ben and Lauren Allen on their autumn wedding day in November, 2019.

Ben and Lauren Allen on their autumn wedding day in November, 2019. - Credit: Archant

‘Less than six months after moving in together, my husband suggested i should move out’

The last few months have been odd. Joyful at times, teary at others. But definitely different. Less than six months after moving in together, my new husband suggested I should move out. I always knew being married to a doctor would be no walk in the park, but I didn’t once think the first few months of our marriage – and Ben’s job as a junior doctor – would be swallowed up by a pandemic. And I’ll be honest, we’re worried. Not for ourselves, but for each other.

When the news first broke about coronavirus and busloads of Covid-possible patients were quarantined at Arrowe Park Hospital at the end of January, we had a weird moment of panic. Disbelief. Because only a few months earlier, those same hospital digs were Ben’s temporary home while he was finding his feet as an F1, having not long since started his first job there as a qualified junior doctor. “We’ve been told not to speak to the media,” he’d joke. “So don’t talk to me.” We laughed – Ben thought he was hilarious – and it’s those little moments of joy between the two of us that brighten our days.

With the national lockdown on March 23rd came a change to Ben’s rota, meaning until mid-August he’s required to work three days on, three days off. It’s an equal mix of normal days, 12-hour shifts and nights. It sounds pretty reasonable – and it’s working out ok, giving Ben the time he needs to rest and recover – but it’s a frustrating balancing act with my Monday to Friday WFH routine, with three in four weekends written off with Ben either working one or both days, or sleeping off his night shift.

The time we do spend together, though, is more fun: we have an at-home date night at least once a week, have swapped out the couch potato life for one of silly card games, and on sunny days we throw on the barbecue and do our best at prettifying the garden.

Ben is under strict instruction to change out of his scrubs and into fresh clothes before leaving work, as well as showering as soon as he gets home. I on the other hand may have gone slightly OTT with the anti-bacterial spray (quite the positive for germophobe me). Ben is doing the best he can with the personal protective equipment that is available, but it is limited, and he mostly works with a surgical mask, plastic apron and gloves unless he feels he requires something more substantial.

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Any doctor has to learn to cope with death, but it’s the number of deaths that is so overwhelming. The risk of catching the virus is part of the job. It only took four days into his new emergency Covid rota for Ben to come home and ask me if I was “absolutely sure” I didn’t want to move out? I should speak to my parents about it – maybe I could stay with them? They’d be happy to have me, but mum is an NHS midwife, and although the risk isn’t quite as high there, there is still a risk. But it’s not the risk I’m worried about. It’s the what-would-happen-if scenario playing out in my head if Ben came down with the virus, and just the constant fear of him catching it and me not being here to help. How was his shift? Has he eaten? Is he feeling ok? Is he getting enough sleep? “I’d never forgive myself if you got ill,” he’d tell me. But I’d never forgive myself if the same happened to him and I wasn’t around.

So for now, it’s business as usual in the Allen household, with a couple more hospital shifts for Ben and a little more time alone for me. It’s not all bad – I get to watch my favourite television shows in peace and make as much mess as I want testing out baking recipes, and for our together time, we focus on quality, rather than quantity.

Watching Ben graduate on a gorgeous Bristol summer’s day last July, I never thought I could be more proud of him than in that very moment. How wrong I was. So to my lovely husband, and to the rest of you fabulous frontliners, cheers.

You’re our superheroes and we love you very much.

Ben and Lauren Allen

Ben and Lauren Allen - Credit: Archant

‘I face the daily fear I may unknowingly bring the virus home and put my wife at risk’

Life as a newly qualified doctor (F1) can be daunting, but I never envisaged my first year on the wards would be dominated by a pandemic. And some days are better than others. In order to acquire the breadth of experience and skills within the hospital, the usual routine would see us rotate through a range of specialties, spending four months on each. But towards the end of our second rotation at the beginning of March, we were told our move would be to an emergency Covid-19 rota.

We all understood the decision to somewhat suspend our usual training had not been taken lightly, with this new rota being implemented to prepare for the anticipated surge in coronavirus patients entering the hospital. As the weeks progressed and the pandemic in our country worsened, we saw elective surgery lists postponed and the hospital enter a greater state of uncertainty.

Would we be able to cope with the vast number of very ill patients predicted to flood through the doors? Would the workforce itself collapse through illness?

I’m based on a ward where all patients are confirmed to have coronavirus, and I face the daily fear I may unknowingly bring the virus home and put my wife at risk. No matter how meticulously you wash your hands or attempt to wear the best available personal protective equipment, that fear never goes away.

But there has been a number of positives. One of the most impressive things I’ve seen so far is how quickly we have mobilised and adapted our practices to help combat a disease we know so little about.

It has been uplifting to see so many colleagues from allied professions answer the call and step into roles not familiar to them. From dentists to final year medical students, people have stepped out of their comfort zones and taken on new responsibilities – some have even come back into the profession from retirement.

An avoidable tragedy brought about by this crisis is the worried mindset of people delaying seeking medical advice when they have a genuine need. We understand why people are cautious about coming into A&E, but we are still open as usual. Delaying going to hospital could have devastating consequences.

I remember the same question that kept popping up when attending medical school interviews: “Why do you want to be a doctor?” Many of us no doubt replied with something along the lines of “to save lives and help people.” Even without a pandemic, it’s important for any doctor to learn we cannot save everyone. But learning to deal with death on this scale is beyond what we could have imagined, and it sometimes makes us feel as if we have failed in our job.

When we hear the nation come together at 8pm every Thursday night, banging wooden spoons on metal pans and giving us a big cheer, it gives us a genuine boost. It’s likely that during any one of those days, many of us will have seen people pass away or had difficult conversations with distressed family members, and the relentless encouragement and support from the public inspire us to keep fighting. But we must remember that it’s not just doctors and nurses who are on the ‘frontline’.

Many of our colleagues in the wider NHS family have adjusted their usual working pattern by picking up extra shifts or filling in for those who are ill themselves. From health care assistants to porters, clerks to pharmacists, every single member of the NHS is truly deserving of our support.

And I’m very proud to be a part of it.

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