Voices from the frontline of the coronavirus crisis

A healthcare worker wearing a heavy-duty facemask

The raw emotion of frontline Healthcare Professionals struggling through the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has been vividly captured in a global research project created and run by ARU.

“We’ve been recording the practitioners’ own words in whatever form they might take, from songs to letters, social media, drawings, writings, vlogs and photos,” explains Dr Shreepali Patel, Director of StoryLab, about The Frontline initiative.

“It’s been an extraordinary and humbling experience, seeing and hearing such insights into how the pandemic unfolded, and the impact it had on those who were dealing with it face to face.”

The Frontline began when Shreepali saw a news story about nurse Dawn Bilbrough, who filmed herself crying after being unable to buy food following two days working on an intensive care ward.

There was widespread media coverage, which led to the setting up of dedicated shopping times for NHS staff.

“I’ve been fascinated with how the way people share their stories has changed,” Shreepali says. “The mobile phone has given them relatively easy access to new audiences, which can be very empowering.”

The project has been seed funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Research in Film Award, and run in partnership with Professor Topun Austin of The Rosie, part of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

Working with fellow StoryLab researchers Dr Marques Hardin and Meghan Horvath, the team began to collect the stories of frontline health and care staff in the pandemic. They approached some via Twitter, where they had been sharing their thoughts and feelings, and others through hospitals, and using news stories about the project.

“It was all very gentle and completely voluntary,” Shreepali explains. “But we were amazed how many people did want to tell us about their experiences on the frontline, dealing with COVID-19.”

She was struck by the honesty and emotion which continually emerged from the stories.

“They talk about moral injury, how their voices were being drowned out by the media noise and political fighting. The anxiety and fear around the virus, not knowing enough about it and how to deal with it, and the continual need for innovation, adapting treatments and ways of working to try to save lives.”

But Shreepali hopes The Frontline project has helped those who have contributed.

“Many say it’s had a therapeutic effect, giving them a chance to reflect and helping them to understand and deal with what they’ve been through. Some have been deeply philosophical, like one consultant who has been writing about how we, as a society, perceive and approach death.

“In all the ways which people have been telling their stories, for me the writing has really stood out. It’s been incredibly powerful. So dignified and thoughtful, without some of the anger and bitterness you might expect.

“But the emotion has still been raw. We’ve heard moving stories of the trauma of having to decide which patients to save, and which not. And also of replacing family, being at the bedside of people who are dying.

“All the while, these professionals have been dealing with such emotion while they also struggle with a lack of personal protective equipment, and no clarity about what they’re really dealing with in terms of the disease and government policy.

“Their call of duty really comes through, their commitment to their patients. But alongside that is a very real fear for their families, of bringing the disease home with them.”

Another notable feature of The Frontline stories is how many of the healthcare practitioners are using their experiences to contribute to their community.

“One doctor has been painting thought-provoking pictures of her colleagues during the pandemic, and is now selling them to raise money for a rest area for staff,” Shreepali reflects.

About 65 healthcare practitioners have shared their stories, mostly from the UK and United States. The Frontline remains open if others want to contribute. All the stories will be open source and available online to anyone who wants to learn from them.

A documentary is also being produced about the first lockdown, using the range of insights which have been shared.

“We hope The Frontline will increase the visibility and provide a better understanding of the lives of healthcare practitioners,” Shreepali says. “Which, in future, could mean improved professional training for them, and better support from politicians and lawmakers for this remarkable group of people.

“We’re also aiming to provide a clear understanding for future generations of what life was really like on the frontline of healthcare during this extraordinary period in our history.”

Find out more about the project and follow The Frontline on Twitter.