‘Major incident in London, 1,325 people who have died in the UK within 28 days of a positive COVID test, the biggest figure reported in a single day since the pandemic began. 68,053 new cases recorded.’ These were among the devastating reports on 8 January 2021. The following day, against this background, I continued my voluntary work on the wards of a central London hospital.

My first impression was that many more wards were off limits due to the dramatic increase of patients who were admitted with COVID-19. Doctors, nurses and supporting staff, already working extremely hard to support vulnerable patients and, indeed, supporting each other in this critical time, were working even more super-humanly. On the wards, you could feel the anxiety amid appreciation for the tremendous amount of work being done in an attempt to bring this virus under control. No number of words can express the dedication, passionate commitment and selfless energy of all NHS staff in fighting the virus.

Wellbeing during the first lockdown created many challenges when the courts throughout the UK closed their doors for business. Workload was significantly and dramatically reduced. The NHS’s call for volunteers could not have been heard more loudly by members of the public who flocked in large numbers to volunteer. Having so much time on one’s hands created a golden opportunity to give something back to the community, and to be able to help and support patients in real need. Indeed, I was among the flocks of volunteers who put themselves forward.

Having gone through the pre-induction programme, I was placed at two London hospitals. I had reservations about volunteering within a hospital setting given the risks of being infected by COVID-19, particularly given the statistics that, if you are from a Black and Minority Ethnic community, you are at greater risk. I was reassured by the hospital about the risks and how volunteers were fully supported in managing both the risks of infections generally and COVID-19. The mandatory infection control training course that a volunteer must complete prior to commencing a post within a hospital setting fortified my reassurance that the risks were ‘low to medium’, depending upon how one personally managed the risks. I was determined to give of my time and be used effectively in helping and supporting patients who needed it most at this critical, vulnerable time in their lives.

During the first lockdown period, my day-to-day duties involved screening hospital visitors for COVID-19 with the assistance of a temperature check device; directing patients to their appointments; delivering newspapers to the wards; and befriending patients who would otherwise not have any visitors due to the strict visitation controls that were put in place. Certainly, a change of pace from the Bar but such service is invaluable to patients who feel socially isolated, alone and disengaged from society at large – which has a significant impact upon both their mental health and wellbeing.

Here are just two examples of the befriending experiences in which I encountered the ‘never give up’ spirit of patients. The first involved a patient who had been admitted for just under a year with various physical conditions which included severe epilepsy and necessitated repeated emergency interventions. During this period, she did not have the benefit of any visitors and, therefore, her mental health was at an all-time low. It was comforting to befriend this patient each week while on the wards. To her great delight, she was due to be discharged on Christmas Eve. Low and behold, she suffered a relapse which prevented her discharge. On 8 January, I visited her again at her bedside; she was in good spirits with a renewed vigour to be discharged. It is this fighting spirit which lifts you up out of the anxiety, uncertainty and a feeling of helplessness during these unprecedented times.

The second involved a patient with dementia who relayed to me, as best she could, her memories as an educational psychologist and her published work. It was such a positive for her to attempt to recount all her achievements but, regrettably, her memory was such that she had enormous difficulty in doing so. However, each week our discussions brought some comfort to her. Sadly, in the weeks that followed, she quickly deteriorated and passed away.

It is important to note that volunteers do not enter COVID-19 wards due to the increased risks involved. On the occasions that you are required to visit the reception area of infectious wards to drop off items for patients, strict PPE clothing was always provided and social distancing within the strict hospital guidelines were an absolute necessity in such infectious environments.

It has been such a joy to see the faces of patients receiving their shopping, gifts, newspapers etc. It makes you feel that you are contributing to someone else’s wellbeing in a positive way. The one-to-one conversations with patients who are at their most vulnerable provide a greater insight and empathy of their situation. This is a meaningful, invaluable relationship for patients who otherwise would not have the opportunity of someone spending this amount of time with them.

Further good news is the roll-out of the vaccines. I am pleased to have this opportunity to be involved in supporting the vaccination programme within the hospital setting by directing, booking, checking and reassuring people that they are in the right place to receive their jabs.

During the pandemic, volunteering really does offer an excellent opportunity to get involved with local agencies, whether within a hospital setting or the community. The increased and unprecedented rise in infections creates an even greater need for volunteers. And my own wellbeing has dramatically improved in being able to, in short, ‘give something back to the community’.

For more information see: nhsvolunteerresponders.org.uk

On the vaccine shift: Stephen (right) is pictured with Shaun, a fellow volunteer at the UCLH NHS Trust, on 13 January, celebrating the highest number of vaccinations per day since UCLH started vaccinating.