What it was like to visit my elderly father on a Covid-19 ward – John McLellan

Impressed by the reassuring sympathy of Covid ward staff, John McLellan says they will need close care and attention, given the remorseless nature of the disease.

The normally crowded atrium inside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow now has almost a monastic stillness (Picture: John Devlin)

Covid-19, Covid-19, Covid-19... the little whiteboards on all but a few doors in the ward in Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital need no further explanation. Staff face danger every moment at the front line of Scotland’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic, although this is not intensive care but where casualties are taken when the enemy has scored a direct hit.

The electronic information board opposite the nurses’ station listing the occupants of the 15 rooms tells another story... Age 97, Age 83, Age 84. The youngest is 77, elderly people who if you don’t know them and hear they have succumbed to the disease your reaction is a sorrowful but resigned, “Oh well.” But one of the rooms is occupied by John McLellan, aged 86. My father.

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His journey to the ward started at the end of February after a fall at home and other “underlying issues” kept him in the Queen Elizabeth and then the Langlands unit for the elderly for over a month. He had not been in his new care assessment home for a day when he was back after another fall and in A&E he was found to be running a temperature. But because he was no longer an in-patient he wasn’t tested for the virus and was returned to the home. Yes, you read that correctly; an old man in a major hospital displaying a coronavirus symptom was apparently sent back untested to a place full of vulnerable people because policy dictated that only in-patients were to be checked.

Less than a week later, last weekend, he had another fall and a further examination back in A&E found the temperature was now a persistent cough, coronavirus infection was duly confirmed and he was re-admitted. By Monday morning an audibly upset consultant rang to say that not only was it definitely Covid-19 but he had developed pneumonia, the chances of him surviving were extremely slim, and if I wanted to visit I should not leave it till the following day. This thing can do its work quickly.

If there had been any concern my dad wouldn’t have been discharged into a care home in the first place, and although his mental capacity had been deteriorating significantly in recent months a fortnight ago his physical health seemed relatively good, he could eat a reasonably hearty tea, and sure enough by yesterday he was still hanging in.

Not sugar-coated, but not cold

Contrary to reports that virus patients cannot receive visitors, the Queen Elizabeth does allow some access but it’s the ultimate double-edged sword; only the relatives of those highly unlikely to make it are permitted, the names sent down to the front door so there is no risk of a distressing argument with security men in the customary hi-viz yellow jackets standing sentry across the entrance.

Why anyone would want to blag their way into a hospital at the heart of the worst pandemic since 1919 is anyone’s guess and sure enough in the vast atrium inside the so-called “Death Star”, what was previously a teeming thoroughfare of visitors, shop assistants, porters and medical staff is now only one level above the monastic stillness of a religious retreat.

It’s the same up on the ward where, unlike the pictures from Italian hospitals of trolley-bound patients lying top-to-toe along the corridors while exhausted medics dash from one stricken sufferer to the next, the ward is as quiet as a closed order, the patients in their individual rooms and the silence broken only by clipped, hushed conversations between staff, or matter-of-fact voices of desk nurses giving condition updates to worried relatives on the phone and situation reports to other parts of the service. There are no hazmat suits or perspex visors.

Even though permission to be there is fully in place, there is an understandable look of quizzical suspicion when I approach the desk, but is immediately replaced by welcoming warmth from the nurse when I say who I am and who I’m visiting. She knows what’s going on. She takes me through the routine... mask, polythene apron, latex gloves – the same kit as the staff – but more importantly the drill for taking them off after being in a room alive with the virus.

Medics will need close care too

And if I’m nervous what must it be like working there every day? “Oh I’ve been working in here for three weeks and I’m still ok,” says the young doctor, but a sideways glance betrays her own concern. In person or on the phone, she and the other doctors are wonderful studies in optimistic and reassuring sympathy when they know full well the circumstances cannot be worse. Nothing is sugar-coated, but neither are they cold nor blunt.

I’m just one of scores of relatives they will see in the coming weeks; they are young and brimming with enthusiasm, will have been straight-A students, probably the highest-flyers in their school years with a lifetime of achievement ahead of them but nothing will have prepared them for this. The remorseless nature of what they face on a daily basis will mean they too need close care and attention.

As the pandemic unfolds they are learning all the time and I know nothing, but even I know that for people in their 80s when Covid-19 infection becomes pneumonia the number of happy endings is limited. The heaving of his chest as his breathing becomes more laboured means there is little doubt about the prognosis.

His quality of life was becoming such that there has been no discussion about tubes, wires and ventilators because of the distress that would almost certainly entail. The only dilemma I face is whether to go back to see him one more time, but potentially put me and my family at risk.

As more stories emerge of 30 and 40-year-olds losing their lives, and the demand for critical equipment increases, these are the realities which will face those with relatives nearing the end of their lives who suffer the pandemic’s worst effects.

Life does indeed go on and plenty of people facing the loss of their livelihoods and loved ones far younger than my dad have a lot more to worry about than me, but there is an inevitable sense of everything being on hold, of other things mattering very little when that’s not the case. These columns are supposed to make some sort of point with which readers can agree or disagree, or at least attempt to amuse, entertain or inform, but this week it’s been difficult to draw conclusions about anything much.

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