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'I'm only 27, I shouldn't be like this': Nurses with long Covid call for better supports

The INMO’s annual conference today heard from a number of nurses who are suffering longer term effects of a Covid-19 diagnosis.

Image: INMO

NURSES HAVE CALLED for a specialised sick scheme for healthcare workers who suffer from long Covid and more flexibility for a phased return to work.

More than 7,500 nurses and midwives have contracted Covid-19 in Ireland – over a quarter of all Covid-19 cases among healthcare workers.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) annual conference today heard from four nurses who were diagnosed with Covid-19 at different stages over the pandemic and who are still suffering from the effects of the disease.

27-year-old Eilish was working on a Covid ward when she was diagnosed with Covid-19 last April. She has been out of work for a full year.

“I wasn’t hospitalised but I did need to get a pulse oximeter sent out to me because I was breathless without moving,” she told the conference today.

“Working on the Covid ward, I had seen how quickly people can get very sick, despite their level of fitness or health or age, so it was obviously very worrying like I had seen firsthand colleagues go into ICU. You’re worried as to how sick you’re actually going to get with Covid.”

A number of weeks following her initial infection, her symptoms had not gone away and she had developed additional symptoms. After ten months and various different tests to check for organ damage, it was discovered that Eilish had pericarditis, a swelling of the tissue surrounding the heart.

“I used to not be on any regular medication and now I’m on a lot of different medication and inhalers,” she explained.

“I used to be able to run 5km but for a while a ten minute walk was a struggle through long Covid, now I’m up to 30 minutes and I’m doing cardiac rehab as well. It does take a lot to accept how your body is now. I’m only 27, I shouldn’t be like this.”

She said there is a need for national data on the number of people with long Covid, particularly healthcare workers, and more long Covid clinics so there is access in every county for those who need the range of tests required to check for organ damage and other longterm effects of the disease.

Eilish also called for greater supports from employers to facilitate a phased return to work for those with long Covid.

“You shouldn’t be penalised for going back to work,” she said. “Different healthcare providers throughout my journey have said to me about using my annual leave to facilitate a phased return, but what happens when that runs out if I’m not fit enough yet to do a 13 hour shift?

We need a phased return that doesn’t include my annual leave. As well as that, if I go back to work tomorrow and relapse, I have to go out again and I’m now on my sick leave. We only have 12 weeks of full pay sick leave over four years – after that, it’s 12 weeks of half pay and then you’re on no pay. So I’m out a year and had I gone back early, six months ago I’d be on no pay now from work.

The conference also heard from Eileen O’Keeffe, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 in January this year. 

“From a symptom point of view, it’s the absolute extreme exhaustion, that’s completely debilitating,” she said. O’Keeffe said if she has a shower she has to go back to bed for between two and four hours.

“To do normal day-to-day functions it has to be literally broken up like that,” she said.

“At the moment the longest that I can tolerate actually being up is about five hours, but when I do that I pay for it the next day. I have really bad joint pain all over my body, horrendous headaches and migraines and the brain fog is really challenging.”

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She said there is a lack of acknowledgement that long Covid exists as it is not a visible condition.

“If you see me out tomorrow doing my shopping I’ll look fine when you see me, but you won’t see me for four days because I can’t get myself up and out of the house and physically do that.

“When people see me I am having a good day and I can do things for short periods of time, so I can go to the shop for half an hour and come back, but anything more than that I am not able.”

O’Keeffe also called for more flexibility for healthcare workers returning to their jobs after time off work with long Covid. 

“Maybe the days need to be spaced out more, maybe they do need annual leave scheduled in, they need that break for a week and then go back in. It needs to be flexible to the person, because it has affected everybody so differently,” she said.

The INMO is calling for government and employer measures including tailored medical supports, research into long Covid impacts, a guarantee that healthcare workers with long Covid won’t face income cuts, and flexible rehabilitation back into work.

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