Published on: 30th June 2020

Hannah Smith.jpgHannah Smith is an occupational therapist working in Stockport, who has reflected on her redeployment to a dementia ward during the coronavirus.
You can read Hannah's honest account in her own words:

"I never imagined in my career as an occupational therapist the experiences I would have whilst being re-deployed full time onto an advanced dementia ward in the midst of a global pandemic.

For all of us in the NHS, this has been an incredibly scary and unprecedented time and I think whilst we have experienced a lot of sorrow and change, it is important to highlight some of the positives that have emerged. I think in some respects, this is a time to highlight the importance of occupational therapy and it may help people to understand the profession a little bit more.

At this time, we as a country, have been stripped of our ‘occupations’ and our ‘roles’; we are unable to do the things we would normally do such as work, shop, eat out, go to the gym and see family. These are things that would also be affected if you became ill or disabled.

Thinking of our roles - for me this is being a partner, daughter, a granddaughter and very recently an auntie to two beautiful baby boys - these have all changed, these are things we once took for granted.

My job is to help people complete their occupations, fulfil their roles and gain a sense of self-worth and independence. Everyone all over the world is experiencing what occupational therapists would call ‘occupational deprivation’.

At this time we are all, hopefully, being a bit kinder to ourselves, focusing on self-care and re-visiting or finding new interests and hobbies to keep us occupied and adapting to our new way of life. This is occupational therapy.

As I take a moment to sit and reflect whilst looking out onto a washing line full of donated wash bags, headbands and my uniforms, I feel grateful for the kindness shown by others during what has been the most challenging few weeks of my career so far.

For me, as an occupational therapist, my core values are enhancing patients’ lives. I have felt it is my responsibility to ensure, if patients are unable to see their families, we keep them connected. The ward team supported me in making rainbow postcards to send, take photographs to email and use an iPad to connect via Facetime.

We have seen the positive outcomes of these actions in abundance, with phone calls from families expressing the great comfort it has given them through to seeing the smiles on the faces of patients when they see their families. This is what dementia care is all about, adapting everyday tasks to meet the person’s needs; this is what occupational therapy is all about.

I have seen continuous acts of kindness from all of the staff, from bringing in toiletries from home to our patients whose families would normally visit, finding plants for our gardening groups, ice creams for those hot days in the sunshine and going above and beyond to ensure our patients feel loved and cared for.

We have hosted afternoon tea dances, baking in the morning to eat in the afternoon, giving meaning and purpose to everyday occupations. We have had families bring in fish and chips; seeing our staff and patients sit together eating out of old fashioned chip shop papers and reminiscing about the good old days - a truly magical moment.

As an occupational therapist, I have never been in the nursing numbers before. This has been an eye-opening experience and has given me the opportunity to immerse myself in dementia care, giving me a unique perspective which I would never have had the opportunity to take.

I have also never professionally seen or been involved in end of life care and although harrowing and distressing, it has given me a real sense of the importance of the small things we can do.

My role means you want to fix things, problem solve and make things better and in end of life care, it can’t be fixed. You can’t stop it, and for me this was very difficult to cope with. So I dug deep and thought what CAN I do, I can’t fix this but I can enhance my patient’s last few days.

Working alongside a passionate activity co-coordinator, tears ran down our faces as we discussed what we could do and we came up with a plan. Our patients made a beautiful rainbow with tissue paper which was put on the wall, we re-positioned the bed to enable our patient to see out of the window, we placed flowers in the room, blankets and cushions on the bed, surrounded her with her favourite things and filled the room with scents of lavender in a hope to bring some comfort.

As we pressed play on the CD player with her favourite music as we left the room, I felt a deep sense of pride. When her family visited, they commented on how it showed them how loved she was and how much we all cared and this to me is very important.

To provide a family with comfort it their most difficult times to me is as important as giving the patient comfort. Since she passed, we have had our first of many de-briefs to talk about our lovely patient, reminisce and answer any unanswered questions.

I am one of many of the staff whose job has changed and have been re-deployed and I feel it is important to recognise that for me, and many others this is a very anxiety-inducing experience. To be taken out of your comfort zone when not in a global pandemic is one thing, to have both at the same time can feel overwhelming to say the least.

Working alongside trainee nurses who have had their training postponed, support workers who used to work in the community crisis teams and technical instructors who are used to working in a very different way, has opened my mind to the adaptability of our professions.

We are all so different with different professional and personal life experiences, some at the start of our careers and some near the end - it shows how, with support, we can all deliver high quality care.

I have had the opportunity to be able to educate people at the beginning of their careers in care about therapeutic techniques used in dementia care and I hope they will continue to use these throughout their careers; an opportunity I would not have had if it wasn’t for me being full time on the ward.

I have been truly astonished by the positivity brought to the ward in this time of challenge and how each and every one of the staff has taken it in their stride and not let our patients pick up on our own anxiety and sadness as we miss our families and ‘normal’ life. This for me, is a skill in itself.

I believe I will not be the same person or occupational therapist once things return to our new ‘normal’. I have seen the devastation Covid-19 can do but I have seen how quickly, as a service, we adapt to change and I have seen the compassion, care and kindness that can come out of crisis.

There have been tears, fear but also laughter and smiles (behind the facemasks) and I hope we can all hold onto the positives we continue to achieve during what we hope will be the last pandemic we experience within our careers."