Back in February, when ‘Wuhan Coronavirus’ was still more than 5,000 miles away, EMAS was hurriedly preparing for our first brush with the illness, and Tim Slater, Derbyshire General Manager, was the on duty Strategic Commander.
The final repatriation flights bringing British citizens back to the UK were expected from Wuhan, China, and due to be landing at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire in the early hours of the morning.
However, due to expected bad weather, a diversion plan was put in place which would see the planes land in Doncaster instead. Clinicians were needed to accompany the passengers on coaches to self-isolation hotels to provide any medical care required on the way, and EMAS stepped in to support Yorkshire Ambulance Service. Tim said: "I received the first phone call at 4pm on the Saturday and I had less than 12 hours to have the teams at the airport ready to receive the passengers.
"By 5.05pm we had stood up members of our Hazardous Area Response Team and had a dozen EMAS clinicians respond to our callout for volunteers for the job. This was a brave thing to do at the time given we didn’t know as much about the disease then as we do now."
Thankfully, EMAS was stood down a few hours later when it was confirmed that the planes would be able to land in Brize Norton as originally planned, and so Tim was still able to go out for dinner as planned to celebrate his eldest daughter’s engagement. But it was the first sign of what was to come.
Tim said: "Back in January and February it still seemed to be that COVID was happening somewhere else, and I don’t think any of us anticipated that the disease would spread in the way it did in Europe, and then enter the UK.
"I have been involved in flu pandemic exercises over the years in the NHS, so I knew the potential scale of a pandemic, but the overall impact has still taken me by surprise."
Unfortunately, COVID arrived much closer to home five weeks later.
Tim returned home from work one evening to find his wife, Sam, with a temperature of 38.9 and flu-like symptoms. His youngest daughter Hannah, now 19, who had come home from university had also developed a cough.
Following national guidance, the household self-isolated and Tim began working from his home in Mickleover. He said: "I had initially underestimated who was most likely to get COVID – I thought it was attacking the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.
"Sam is a usually fit and healthy person who cannot sit still for more than half an hour, and didn’t have any pre-existing conditions, so I was taken aback by the ferocity of her symptoms – the body aches, high temperature and crippling fatigue. It really knocked her for six and I was genuinely concerned as I had never seen her that unwell.
"Days at work were long and busy – I had set up our study as a mini home office and was also trying to keep all the family apart within the house but cared for at the same time."
Eight days after the onset of symptoms, Sam had begun to feel better, and so on one day she went to sit outside in the unseasonably warm March sunshine, when she suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Tim said: "I had just begun to feel relieved that she was getting better, when she came back indoors and looked awful. She was so pale her skin was almost translucent, she had blue tinging around the lips and she was struggling to breathe.
"As we were self-isolating, I felt completely helpless as I couldn’t just pop her in the car and drive her to hospital, so I rang our Regional Operations Manager and said ‘I need some help here’. The Clinical Operations Manager (COM) and a crew came out and quickly agreed that she needed to go into hospital.
"I naturally went to go with them, and it was the crew who stopped me and reminded me ‘you can’t go Tim, they’re not allowing any visitors’. That was awful. It was bad enough that she was going into hospital, but she was going in alone and frightened, and there was nothing I could do.
"My colleagues were amazing, but it is a scary experience to go through on your own, being taken to hospital, isolated and with all around you in personal protective equipment (PPE)."
Tim spent the following hours packing an overnight bag for Sam, trying to keep his daughters calm, sorting dinner out for them all, cautiously updating family members and distracting himself with work, as he waited for news.
Thankfully, later that night, Sam was discharged from hospital and arrived home as it was confirmed it hadn’t developed into pneumonia.
Three days later, Tim started with COVID symptoms, and within a week he was suffering with a cough, fatigue and loss of taste, and although his cough lasted over six weeks, thankfully he never experienced symptoms as badly as his wife, and she had started to recover enough to support him and the family.
Despite a COVID swab test that came back negative, it was confirmed when Tim tested positive for COVID antibodies that their illnesses had been COVID.
Tim says that he was lucky as it was his family that got him through the lockdown as they did what they could to create social occasions.
He said: "Like everyone else, we looked for things to do from home and did a weekly quiz via Skype that got the whole family involved and made more of an event of takeaways. In a funny way it was nice to get some rare time together as normally we all lead such busy lives."
From a work perspective, Tim found it difficult and frustrating to work from home, especially during his period of self-isolation. As a work team, we share duties between us and all support each other.
He said: "There were several incidents where I would normally have been able to get to the Derbyshire stations or see staff members, but I was having to do everything remotely. So I felt the need to do as much as possible to contribute, but it’s a juggling act when you are trying to care for relatives as well.
"It was a surreal time to be working in EMAS and in the NHS. It was intense, but we all worked together as a health and social care system better than we had before. It was a constantly evolving picture across our service and the wider system, but we were able to make important decisions quickly. We saw some reduction in patient activity, our non-conveyance rates and response to patients improved, which gave me a sense of value."
Tim also said that the response to the first wave of the pandemic made him proud to work at EMAS.
He said: "The amount of time and energy people were putting in behind the scenes to make sure the ambulance service ran smoothly was incredible, and we saw so many people stepping up and doing completely different roles to their normal day jobs.
"Everyone was working flat out to keep our staff, patients, friends and families as safe as we possibly could.
"And I have nothing but praise for the frontline crews wearing PPE for extended periods of time in the heat over the summer, as well as facing an element of the unknown in the early days of the virus. It was, and continues to be, a personal sacrifice for everyone. Everyone has their story to tell either from a work or home life perspective. So, a real thank you to everyone who has done so much."