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I'm a GP who got coronavirus because I had no PPE. I feel guilty but also angry | Society


I have been off work for five weeks with coronavirus, which I contracted during consultations with patients at the GP practice where I work. I still gasp when I try to talk, each day hoping for a miraculous improvement. I struggle to make a bed, let alone go back to treating my patients.

All I can feel is guilt. Guilt for my colleagues at the practice for adding to their workload. Guilt for the under-protected doctor in A&E who saw me when I became so breathless I needed to go to hospital. And mostly guilty for my children who watched me struggling to breathe and didn’t know if they were going to see me again.

Last week the registrar who helped train me died. It breaks my heart because you can’t get that knowledge back, or recreate that person. And for every doctor, there is a family beside them. I don’t think as a profession we are ever going to be the same again.

As well as guilt I feel anger that we were so unprotected. Early on, we felt like we were going into the battlefield from the trenches in the first world war. It was very frightening. I’d like Matt Hancock to stand in A&E all day and examine patients in a plastic apron and gloves and masks.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is not just vital for those in the intensive care unit and high dependancy unit. It needs to be available in other areas: A&E, ambulance services, GP practices and care homes, to name a few. We are all exposed to the virus time and time again. The advice as to who should be protected changes daily, but it is always behind the curve – as was the guidance of the symptoms and signs of coronavirus.

It was obvious after the February half-term holiday that Covid-19 would hit England. Countless families returned from holidays all over Europe, yet the guidelines for testing remained the same. I have friends in Italy who were panicking about us because we weren’t reacting quickly enough. Doctors in Italy were saying ‘Test, test, test’. The World Health Organization was telling us to test. But nothing changed.

People were advised to go through NHS 111, which ironically was how I ended up with coronavirus. Doctors were wearing whatever PPE they had to see patients with Covid-19 symptoms, but to begin with they were just a cough and a temperature. Patients with sore throats and headaches weren’t flagged as a risk, so I saw them entirely unprotected.

In late February I had an influx of children with sore throats and headaches, and patients who “forgot” they had been in Spain or “only flew through Milan”. If I could do that week again I would still see every patient, but insist on PPE for everyone. By the end of the week I had mild symptoms of coronavirus.

As an NHS doctor, the advice I was given? Seven days isolation, no testing. Luckily my seven days ended on a Friday when I felt well once more. However, like countless others, day nine was a sudden change as I struggled to breathe and my temperature soared. Once more I followed guidelines and called NHS 111. They told me to contact my GP.

The fear I felt only made my breathing worse. I knew the guidelines for hospital admission and knew I had reached this point – if I had been my own patient I would have called 999 for an ambulance – but I couldn’t get past the feeling that others needed the doctors more than me.

By the beginning of the third week I was still struggling to speak sentences and with immense pressure from a colleague I went to hospital. My husband drove me there. Leaving my children was the hardest, most traumatic moment I have ever experienced. Knowing that my job had put them in a position where they could lose their mother made me feel so selfish.

The staff in my local A&E were very unprotected. It’s ironic that the public is told to keep a two-metre distance and yet healthcare professionals are protected in a flimsy surgical mask, plastic gloves and a pathetic apron. I tried to make them keep away from me because I obviously had coronavirus but it is impossible to maintain a safe distance and take observations or bloods from a patient. My CT showed widespread Covid-19. I was not tested so I don’t count, like numerous others in the country’s total of positive tests. I was there all day and they wanted to keep me in, but I cried and told them I wanted to be at home. They only let me leave because I’m a doctor.

I was more ill than I’ve ever been; I might well have died. My oldest son doesn’t want me to go back to work because he thinks it’s too dangerous. But I’m desperate to get back. I hate knowing my colleagues are still in the firing line, fighting, and thinking I’m not doing anything to help them.

If you would like to contribute to our Blood, sweat and tears series about experiences in healthcare during the coronavirus outbreak, get in touch by emailing sarah.johnson@theguardian.com

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