26 May 2020

At the end of March, chief nursing officer for England Ruth May and Health Education England chief nurse Professor Mark Radford wrote to third-year nursing students to ask them to carry out the final six months of their course as paid placements in the NHS to help the health system cope with the COVID-19 outbreak. This was an unprecedented decision made in response to an urgent clinical need, and hospitals across the country had to work quickly to handle applications from trainee nurses and provide a basic induction programme to help them get used to a new working environment. 

Thirteen student nurses joined Royal Papworth Hospital in April in response to this request, effectively starting their nursing careers during the peak of the most serious health crisis in a generation. Thanks to the hard work of our recruitment team who processed their applications quickly, our education teams who developed an induction programme for them and our existing staff who worked in different ways to support them in their first few weeks, they have all played an important role in caring for our patients.  

We spoke to three of them about what it was like to join Royal Papworth Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Zoe Turner, nursing student at the University of Hertfordshire

I was due to start work on the cardiology ward at Royal Papworth Hospital in September, but when the COVID-19 outbreak happened and we heard that Health Education England and the Nursing and Midwifery Council were asking trainee nurses to join early, I signed up straight away. 

We had a two-day induction to working in the hospital plus a day’s training in the critical care department and then we were ready to start. I’ll be honest: my first day working in critical care was very stressful. The hospital had “surged” its critical care department to cope with the huge increase in COVID-19 patients, so we were working in areas that aren’t usually used for critical care. We were wearing full PPE (personal protective equipment) and caring for patients who were much sicker than those I’m used to caring for. It was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting and at first I thought I couldn’t do it but after a while I did get used to it. 

My second shift went much better. I was part of the ‘essential care team’ made up of student nurses, physiotherapists, healthcare support workers and other professionals, providing basic care to patients to help take the pressure off the nurses. I got a lot of support from other people in the team – particularly the physiotherapists – and they really explained everything to me. I actually have loved working here over the last few weeks. I’ve learnt so much quickly – I’m now competent at taking bloods, which I never did during my course. I’ve learnt a lot of new skills and now I’m a team leader in the essential care team. People keep thanking me for being here which is lovely but I’m just glad I’ve been able to help. 

Laura Buckingham, student at Anglia Ruskin University 

I’m due to start on the surgical ward at Royal Papworth Hospital in September. I did a placement on the surgical ward at the old hospital a couple of years ago and loved how busy and challenging it was and how friendly the team were. It was the only placement during my course where I thought: “I want to work here.” 

As soon as we were invited to come and work in the NHS to support the COVID-19 response I knew I would do it. I felt useless sitting at home when the government declared a national incident and I wanted to put all the skills I’ve learnt over the last few years to use. 

My first shift in critical care was so different to the kind of nursing I’m used to. I think I felt more vulnerable because I knew that anyone can catch COVID-19 and I worried about catching it and taking it home. 

There are so many unknowns with COVID-19. It was hard seeing the information on the patients’ monitoring screens and knowing that the results weren’t good. It was tough going home after some of the things we’d seen and not having your usual support mechanisms, not being able to see family members and give them a hug. 

It’s nice that everyone is realising how valuable our job is and I hope that lasts after this crisis. We’ve worked hard to get here and it’s nice to know that what we’re doing is appreciated. I know I’m definitely doing the right thing being here.

Michelle Kavanagh, student at Anglia Ruskin University

I am in my final year of my nursing course and hope to be a specialist oncology nurse in the future. I had done all of my placements during my course at Royal Papworth Hospital, so when the COVID-19 outbreak happened I wanted to go and help them. 

When I started my paid placement in April I initially worked on the respiratory ward, looking after patients who needed urgent treatment for conditions like cystic fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension. It felt fairly normal on the ward but it was a bit surreal knowing what was going on in the rest of the hospital. Patients were understandably nervous about being in the hospital during the COVID-19 outbreak so I had to reassure them that the team is doing everything they can to ensure patient safety, including wearing personal protective equipment when nursing vulnerable patients. 

I had done a placement in critical care as part of my training so I knew what to expect, but my first shift on critical care during the COVID-19 outbreak was still very hard going. I was shocked by how poorly people were and I wasn’t used to seeing so many patients on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machines. It felt strange wearing all the PPE and knowing that the patients could only see our eyes. 

Although it’s been hard at times, I’m so glad I’ve got a job here. Everyone I work with is amazing and people are so friendly. The Deputy Chief Nurse even thanked me for coming to work here and other staff members have gone out of their way to support us.

Find out more about nursing opportunities at Royal Papworth Hospital.