Updated: Critical care

Anthony Fuller tells us the story of his student Maria, an ICU nurse who is learning to drive while caring for her patients under the most difficult of circumstances.

At 10am on 1 May I took this photograph of Maria, just before I delivered her driving lesson. Today, 2 May, Maria is at work from 7.30am until 8.30pm, though probably later still as she rarely finishes on time. She is a specialist intensive care nurse working in the intensive care unit (ICU) at York Hospital caring for COVID-19 patients. Some recover and get well, but sadly, some don’t make it despite the amazing care of Maria and her colleagues. It’s not just physically tiring work it’s mentally draining and at times incredibly distressing, especially when losing a battle and therefore a patient. But for Maria and her colleagues the war goes on! 

A few months ago, prior to COVID-19, Maria was promoted and is now meant to be training and working as a specialist cancer care nurse. All that is on hold as her specialist ICU training, skills and experience is vital to York’s Intensive Care Unit at this challenging time. Maria was learning to drive with my school Leap 2 Drive until the pandemic struck, then lockdown. She was close to test standard and we’d booked a driving test for her. That was cancelled by the DVSA, understandably, as all driving tests had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. 

As soon as I heard of the key worker training register I offered to start driving lessons again with Maria. I explained the key worker training register to her, put together by the DIA to provide training to ADIs teaching key workers to drive. It was put together to minimise risk to the ADIs themselves, key worker students such as Maria, the general public and the volunteer DVSA examiners. 

Maria travels by pedal cycle to and from work, a distance of several miles. During the last few days there’s been torrential rain in York and Maria gets soaked and cold before she even begins her challenging shift. When she arrives in the ICU at York Hospital she showers, changes out of her personal clothes and into uniform adding the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) we’ve heard so much about. She treats, cares and works exceptionally hard for more hours without a break than most of us can imagine. The usual ten minute comfort breaks Maria used to take, cannot now be taken due to the amount of PPE she has to wear; instead, now after four hours she has a short break; if duty permits. 

Duty always comes first and with people like Maria always has and always will. Behind her ears Maria has sores, caused by the heavy PPE, the PPE so vital in helping to protect her life. The sores are painful, but just something else she has to put up with. She is uncomfortable for every second of her shift, but her determination, professionalism and resilience puts that to the back of her mind. She has so many others to think about, she cannot think about herself. 

At 8.30pm this evening if she’s able to finish work on time, and that’s a big ‘IF’, she’ll remove the PPE and change out of her uniform. All of her work clothes will go directly to the hospital laundry  to minimise the risk of infection to others. Maria will shower again, be able to wear her own clothes again, at least for a little while. 

Maria will cycle home, maybe in the torrential rain we’ve been experiencing of late. She won’t be stopping at the supermarket; Sainsbury’s allows NHS staff to go in and buy food at 7.30am without queuing, but at that time Maria is at a patient’s bedside providing treatment and intensive care. She’ll get what she can from a local shop, always after queuing with the general public and then go home, change from her wet clothing, shower again, prepare her food and grab a bite to eat. She’ll go to bed late and rise at 5.45am to begin the cycle ride at about 6.30am on her way to the next 7.30am shift.

As the photograph shows Maria has taken me up on my offer to deliver driving lessons to her. She’s followed my advice and applied through an emergency website set up by the DVSA for her driving test. Within the UK, 400 volunteer examiners are working at this time (approximately two out of 10). Maria will be able to take her driving test in three weeks’ time. 

Last week her details were added to the key worker training register, so the police and anyone else entitled to know can check that Maria, as a key member of NHS frontline staff, is entitled to take driving lessons. My details can also be checked and confirmation obtained that I have passed the online ADI course designed for ADIs training key workers in order to educate and help minimise the risk whilst we teach wonderful people like Maria. I passed the online examination, evidencing I’d retained the course knowledge. 

Yesterday, my wife Caroline who is an NHS sister was able to pass details to Maria of an NHS car lease/purchase scheme. Maybe with hard work and a little luck, within a few weeks Maria will have a full driving licence, her pedal cycle will be locked in the shed and she’ll have the luxury of a car to travel to and from work and even make that trip to the supermarket possible!

UPDATE: Maria passed! Here she is with her test certificate.

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