As I stepped out of the hospital, a sea of news crews waited for us and I instantly felt overwhelmed.
That’s when it hit me – we’d just made history.
Only moments before, I had administered the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the first ever out-of-trial patient in the world, after it had been approved for use in the UK just days beforehand.
For that whole day on 4 January 2021, I felt an incredible sense of pride that my colleagues had helped develop the life-saving vaccine, arimidex foie and that I was involved in some small way.
Exactly one year on, I’m still proud, but also hopeful too. It’s not been an easy year for us in the NHS though.
On New Year’s Eve in 2020, I was asked whether Oxford University Hospitals would be prepared to give its first AstraZeneca vaccines publicly, as Margaret Keenan and colleagues in Coventry had done for the first Pfizer vaccines the month before.
We’d already been vaccinating people with Pfizer for almost a month beforehand so we were delighted that we would be part of this.
To be asked to deliver the first vaccine produced in the UK felt like a real privilege – especially after almost a year of caring for some of the most unwell patients on our busy Covid and critical care wards, as the pandemic continued changing the very fabric of our healthcare service.
In line with national guidance, we identified two of our clinically-vulnerable patients, 88-year-old Trevor Cowlett (pictured above) and 82-year-old retired maintenance manager Brian Pinker (pictured below) to be among the first who would be receiving their vaccine – the latter would become the very first.
As the Chief Nursing Officer, who had been regularly working in our hospital vaccine hub, I was delighted and honoured to be asked to administer them.
The day itself was a typically busy day, with many patients booked in for their vaccines. I came in early to help set everything up among the chaos of the winter Covid-19 wave that was happening at the time.
Then I walked into the vaccine hub, where a small media crew was waiting to capture the moment with Brian.
The 82-year-old was keen to get his vaccine and was very proud as an Oxfordshire born and bred gentleman. As one of our kidney dialysis patients, he told me that this was his little bit of hope towards getting back to a normal life after staying away from friends and family for some time.
The rest of the day was very emotional. We vaccinated several hundred members of the public and colleagues from across health and social care. Each one had their own story to tell – from being able to reunite with family to returning to work in the health service after shielding.
People were taking selfies with their vaccination cards too – it just all felt so hopeful after what had been one of the most challenging years of our lives. When I got home that evening, I felt hugely proud and on a high as I watched the news coverage from the day’s events.
For the next few months – as a board member and part of an executive team – we led the Trust’s response to Covid. I also regularly worked in intensive care, which was really tough. There’d be days when we’d have a number of Covid deaths in a single shift in our wards.
The hardest moments were treating and, sadly, losing colleagues to the disease. I’ll never forget the sorrow that filled the room while sitting in a lecture theatre watching a virtual funeral of a colleague. We knew this was a possibility after starting the vaccine rollout, but it doesn’t make it any less easy.
In those moments, we rallied together and tried to do everything we could to just support each other through it all. It was simple things, like sharing motivational messages on WhatsApp or just checking in with a chat.
When hospital admissions eventually started to decline from around March – in large part to a successful vaccine rollout and mammoth undertaking by everyone in the NHS – that’s when the recovery programme started.
We had worked hard to care for both Covid patients and those who needed urgent treatment – for example, those with cancer – but some patients’ operations were delayed due to the pandemic so we started to schedule them for their treatment.
We’ve tried to do the best we can when it comes to making decisions around clinical prioritisation and to see as many people as possible, but there’s still a backlog, which can often feel very challenging for all.
Throughout it all, I’ve noticed a shift in the public’s response to the NHS. We went from weekly claps of appreciation and getting sent gifts to boost morale – such as food or hand cream – to seeing upset and frustration from the public. This has become an issue of increased concern and has led to us having to introduce body cameras for emergency department staff to help maintain their safety.
What I also find very difficult is reading about people who don’t agree with vaccines interfering with colleagues and members of the public who want to give and receive their vaccination safely.
While a number of staff members have been absent as they’ve tested positive or are having to isolate due to the latest Omicron variant, it’s still too early to properly assess the impact of this variant.
However, we are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. We’re just trying to stay positive about life and do all that we can to stay negative from a Covid perspective.
We’ve learned some valuable lessons throughout the pandemic. Clinically, the progression of Covid treatments has enabled healthcare staff to assure many patients and their families that we can treat them, so patients are markedly less scared when they’re admitted to hospital. Vaccines have given everyone a sense of relief that we will get through this current wave.
Just last week, I worked in our vaccine hub and spoke to countless people who were thrilled to get their booster jabs.
One woman said the booster gave her the peace of mind to see her grandchildren again, while another person was getting hers after just having her baby. Another said: ‘I feel like a miracle has happened that we have these.’
It’s these stories from everyday people that keep us going. That’s the power of these vaccines – they’ve given most of us the strength to carry on.
A year on from that first-ever Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, I’m still holding on to that same hope I felt that day.
As health and social care teams, we can get through this and we can continue to all pull together in response to what the public need.
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