Starting a career in the NHS at the height of a global pandemic might not sound like a great idea to everyone, but for Rachel Johnson it made her year.
The 35-year-old began work as an Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) at the end of March 2020 after being made redundant from her previous job in sales when the pandemic struck.
Initially working through an agency, she became a permanent member of EMAS staff in August 2020.
She said: "It is completely different to anything I’ve ever done before and wasn’t something I’d ever considered.
"I guess I’d just always assumed you’d need lots of qualifications that I don’t have and never thought it would be suitable for me, but I absolutely love working here. I work with some great people and it is such a rewarding role."
For Rachel and other new EMDs who have started during the pandemic, the training process has been very different to that undergone by longer-serving colleagues.
She said: "Most of the first two weeks was done by Zoom, which was all new to me; as it was to most people back then. Other members of staff have told me that training would normally take around 13 weeks, but we were in the control room with mentors after two weeks.
"I think being thrown in at the deep end has helped us. We’ve had no choice but to get to know the systems quickly and not had time to stop and worry about anything.
"In many ways we’ve been lucky because we’ve not known any different. The staff who’ve been here longer have had to change what they do and change their approach to calls, so it’s probably been a lot harder for them in that sense."
In the short time that she’s been with the service, Rachel says she has already noticed a difference in the type of calls the control rooms have been receiving.
"At the beginning of lockdown, when I first started, the calls were definitely different. At that time people were so fearful of going in to hospital that most of the calls we received were from really, genuinely poorly people. That’s changed as the year’s gone on and people have become less fearful of COVID-19.
"Call volumes have gone up again now that people are less worried about it. We get a lot of calls from people who are worried about what are often quite mild symptoms and just want to check in with someone.
"On the other hand, we get those who are struggling with their breathing and are unsure who to turn to or what to do. They’re often very apologetic and feel like they shouldn’t be calling us. We have to reassure them that we’re not wasting time and it’s what we’re here for."
Hitting the ground running at such a crucial time for EMAS has had its ups and downs, and Rachel acknowledges that some of the more difficult shifts can leave you feeling drained.
She credits her family for helping her to stay strong.
She said: "I am so lucky to have my husband and my children. They are so proud of me and so supportive, and they understand that sometimes when I come home after a shift I may just need a cuddle and not really want to talk much.
"My daughter is 17 and is just dead proud and is always bragging to everyone at college that her mum works for the NHS. My son is 10 and he loves the fact that I wear a uniform."
At times she admits she has found it hard to juggle family life and work, particularly when her children and herself have had to self-isolate. She tested positive for COVID-19 herself at the beginning of November, but fortunately had a mild case.
Rachel said: "It’s tiring when you’re constantly worrying ‘ooh, was that a cough?’. Normally you accept that the kids will have coughs and colds when they start back at school but it’s different this year when you’re constantly worrying whether or not you’re going to have to isolate."
She says one of things she has found the most upsetting this year has been dealing with people who are alone at the end of the phone, and whose mental health is suffering due to the pandemic.
"We get it on the phone all the time, people that are isolating on their own. You can hear the impact it’s having on people’s mental health. We’re getting more and more calls where people just feel so isolated and alone, and they’ve had enough."
But despite the difficult calls, Rachel is loving her new role and the feeling of making a difference to people in a time of need.
She said: "You have moments where you have your tears and need a few minutes to recover when you come off a call but, on the flipside, you have some calls where you know you’ve really helped someone when they needed it most and that’s such a good feeling.
"We’re there to support the caller through one of the most traumatic times they could go through and, even if it’s not a positive outcome, it’s nice to know that you’ve helped someone in that way."