‘NHS Staff Risked Their Lives For Me. I Still Think About Them Every Day’

To mark NHS day on 5 July, Anna Silverman speaks to coronavirus survivors who were saved by our frontline heroes.


by Anna Silverman |
Updated on

Malin Dahlman was alone in her east London flat when she started struggling for breath. The otherwise healthy 32-year-old could barely speak by the time she called for an ambulance. As she waited for it to arrive, she FaceTimed a friend. ‘I just lay there so my friend could see if I was breathing,’ she says. ‘I was gasping for air, desperate and coughing to try and fill my lungs, but the air wouldn’t come.’

It was mid-March and she was rushed straight to the nearby Royal London Hospital; staff quickly cleared the corridors to make room for a Covid-19 patient. ‘It was dark and quiet inside and no one was around, but I could see people peering out from behind windows, watching and waiting for us to pass,’ she says.

From there, Malin, a brand strategist, underwent two of the most terrifying weeks of her life as she was hooked up to machines that forced oxygen into her lungs, tubes were shoved down her throat and she came close to being put on a ventilator. But, despite the deeply traumatic experience, the extraordinary level of care she received has stayed with her.

It’s about them treating you like you’re part of their family, because you don’t have your family with you and it’s terrifying. How do you even begin to thank people like that?

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us all how precious the NHS is. So far, around 100,000 people who were Covid-19 positive have been admitted to hospital in England. Healthcare workers have been working gruelling shifts in hot, heavy personal protective equipment (PPE), separating from their families to look after their patients. Survivors have spoken of

the outstanding care they received and ‘NHS worker’ soon became synonymous with ‘frontline hero’.

Workers at every pay grade, from hospital porters and cleaners upwards, have made extraordinary sacrifices and often put their lives on the line as Britain battled this unprecedented virus. The sense of gratitude has been palpable: for 10 weeks, we came out to clap in the streets for the NHS and key workers. ‘They saved my life,’ says Ria Lakhani, 35, a sales executive from London, who was in intensive care at UCLH for seven days in early April.

‘There were doctors and nurses who physically didn’t leave my bedside; doctors who worked later than their shift so they could call my husband and dad to give them an update on my health; a doctor who went to the shop to get me apple juice when the ward had run out. It’s about them treating you like you’re part of their family, because you don’t have your family with you and it’s terrifying. How do you even begin to thank people like that?’ she says.

Ria was rushed to UCLH after catching coronavirus while recovering from a major operation in a private hospital. There were days she was so bad she thought about

how she would say goodbye to her family. ‘Breathing is something we do without thinking and suddenly it became the hardest thing,’ she says. ‘I owe my life to those doctors and nurses. It’s a virus they didn’t know anything about and yet they would sit by my bed, risking their life for me. I’ve been recovering at home for weeks now and I still think about them every day.’

Those on the frontline have paid a heavy price. More than 200 NHS hospital staff have died, others have suffered serious illness. Charlene Nelson, 38, a nurse at Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals, is considered ‘high risk’ after she had a kidney transplant in 2015. But even being rushed to hospital with coronavirus in April – and fearing for her life at the time – hasn’t dulled her dedication to nursing.

‘I was afraid I wouldn’t make it and that my 12-year-old son would be left motherless,she says of the six frightening days she spent struggling to breathe in hospital. ‘The high BAME death rate was on my mind and

I know a nurse who passed away from it – she was a colleague the same age as me. I would cry from the fear of it all in hospital, but sometimes I was in too much pain to even open my eyes.’

But, she explains, as a nurse, you don’t think about catching viruses. ‘You think about your patients first. I look at them and think, “That could be my child or my mother,”’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t say I’m never afraid, but nursing is part of who I am. I don’t want the patient to feel they’re being treated differently because of Covid, I want them to feel they’re being treated like an individual and that’s exactly how I was made to feel when I was looked after.’

Although it’s far more unusual for young people’s lives to be in danger if they catch coronavirus, there have been a number of serious cases among the under-forties. Leah Reay, a paramedic in London, is just 23 but was hospitalised after treating 10 patients with Covid-19 the week before. ‘I’d been first on the scene to a patient and, by the time we realised it was Covid-related, it was too late for PPE and I’d been exposed,’ she says. ‘I blocked out the worry because it’s my job – if you think about it, it feels crazy: the thing everyone is isolating from, we’re running towards.’

A week later, towards the end of May, Leah deteriorated fast and developed a high fever and breathing difficulties. ‘I felt like I was drowning; like I was underwater and I couldn’t get any air into my lungs,’ she says. ‘In hospital they were so efficient and had an isolation room ready for me. I don’t know what I’d have done if that hadn’t been there when I needed it, or what my patients would do if the ambulance service wasn’t there for them.’

When Malin checked out of intensive care, the doctors and nurses whooped and clapped as she left. When she returned to the recovery ward, one nurse cried with joy and told her she’d been checking her progress on their internal system.

While her lungs continue to heal, Malin still can’t walk far, but lives close enough to the Royal London Hospital to pass it regularly. ‘I look up and think about all the people inside who helped me,’ she says. ‘And day after day how many other people they will be saving.’

READ MORE: Terrified. Emotional. Uncertain. Lonely. Four Tales From The NHS Frontline

READ MORE: Grazia Meets The Women Working On A Covid-19 Vaccine And Hears Their Stories In Their Own Words

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