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Being on the MERIT team

Being on the MERIT team

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When I first heard about COVID-19, I didn’t pay much attention. It sounded like a ’you’ problem that would never hit close to home. Obviously, within a few months it became a global pandemic and very much a ‘me’, or indeed ‘us’ problem, and I was hearing things like “war-time rota,” “we are two weeks behind Italy” and “hide your parents.”

Fortunately, I work in a dynamic, forward-thinking department, and things were already in motion. Elective surgery was stepped down, training sessions were up and running, mask fit testing was a go, and new rotas were being forged. Then came the MERIT (Mobile EndotRacheal Intubation Team) call “looking for volunteers to join this group...”, and surprisingly, I felt that this was something I could do!

I was on an adrenaline high on my first MERIT shift. Then came the first call: “We need the MERIT team in AAW.” This was it. The moment when make-believe becomes reality, when simulation becomes real life, when heroes are made! The team assembled, retrieved our equipment and were waved off by the theatre team like soldiers heading to the frontline. As we walked along the hospital corridors in movie-like slow motion with the wind in our faces, we knew this was our moment. We were greeted on the way by staff in sheer awe asking “Wow, are you the MERIT team?” “Yes we are ma’am,” I replied (possibly with an American accent) “we’re just here to do our job.” We arrived at our destination and began preparing. Within minutes we were told, “Actually we don’t need you anymore.” They had decided to give the patient more time. The comedown was hard! We returned to theatre to the surprise of the staff and lots of “that was quick” type comments. The shame!

All jokes aside though, being on the MERIT team has been like a rollercoaster. I’m doing night shifts again, intubating outside of theatre in full PPE, feeling hot and sweaty. It’s crazy stuff. However, I quickly realised that I hadn’t considered the emotional aspect of what we were doing. Watching patients say goodbye to their loved ones over the phone was heart-breaking. We knew there was a chance they wouldn’t see their families again. Over the next couple of weeks, it became evident that even the patients that seemed like they would pull through were passing away in ICU. That was hard to stomach.

I learned something with each intubation, and each time was slicker than the last. Our roles have become more clearly defined, we are extremely well-supported, and we have built an amazing rapport with our intensivist colleagues. I also learned that my consultant anaesthetic colleagues are awesome. Even when I started displaying symptoms of the dreaded ‘rona’ and had to self-isolate, my colleagues were 100% supportive, they encouraged me not to feel guilty about being off for seven days, and I was inundated with offers of “Should I drop off some supplies for you outside your house and then run for my life? :)”

My job plan feels like a distant memory, life before lockdown seems like a distant memory, life before MERIT seems like a distant memory. I do, however, give credit to all of my colleagues. MERIT is a small part of everything else that is happening to keep the wheels turning, and everyone has proved themselves valuable. We are all keeping it together whilst adjusting to this ‘new normal’. We look forward with bated breath to the end of this pandemic.

Desire Onwochei
Consultant Anaesthetist
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London