Nurse Jenny back in NZ

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Nurse Jenny...Jenny McGee, the nurse who treated British prime minister Boris Johnson in the ICU unit at St Thomas' Hospital in London, has returned to New Zealand for a break. She gave a talk in Wyndham last week. PHOTO: SANDY EGGLESTON

The nurse who is credited with helping save the life of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when he spent time in intensive care with Covid-19, is home in New Zealand taking a break.

The former Southlander spoke at a Wyndham Pioneer Lions Club fundraiser for St John, held at Menzies College last week.

Before the meeting, Ms McGee told The Ensign it was “crazy” she had never caught the disease given she had nursed so many people who were ill with it.

Now she was vaccinated she was not afraid she would catch it.

“I’ve been through far worse with the first two that came through, particularly Delta, so I am certainly not afraid of Omicron.”

She originally wanted to be a veterinarian.

“I’m a farm girl.

“I loved my animals but I don’t think I really had the grades for that … and I just wanted to see the world and nursing was the way to do it.”

She first nursed in Melbourne where she completed her intensive care unit (ICU) training but has since nursed in many places including Europe, the Caribbean and South America.

During her talk, Ms McGee described what it was like working through two waves of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom, in the days before there was a vaccine.

She was working in the ICU unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

In the days before the pandemic hit in the United Kingdom, it was possible to see what it would be like because of what was happening in other parts of Europe.

Hospital staff started preparing.

Usually, it took at least six months to train an ICU nurse who worked one on one with patients.

“It’s not something anyone can walk into one day and start doing.

“It is very technical and you need a lot of knowledge.”

Two hundred nurses were redeployed from other parts of the hospital.

“They were given one day’s training on the most basics of intensive care.”

These nurses were under the supervision of ICU trained nurses.

While she was not afraid of catching Covid now, it was a different matter during the early days of the pandemic.

Nurses were working 12-hour shifts and conditions were very difficult.

“We were terrified that we would catch Covid … we were just thrown into this pandemic.”

Usually, the hospital had space for about 70 ICU patients.

The greatest number of patients admitted at one time during the first wave of the pandemic was 180. .

“What we had to do to fit all the patients in was to double up bed spaces.”

There was enough room to move between beds but no space for curtains.

“Privacy goes out the window and this was really really hard.

“We couldn’t provide the privacy and dignity that we would normally to our patients.

“We needed to save as many lives as possible.”

It did not help that some of the patients were nurses.

“One of my horrible memories is, I looked down the row of intensive care patients and all the patients were healthcare workers like me.”

The personal protection equipment was not easy to wear nor see through.

“It was hot and we had to shout at each other.

“It is a really hard thing not to be able to read people’s expressions.”

It was also noisy in the unit because of the ventilators.

Some nurses suffered renal failure because they did not drink enough water.

While she could not comment on what it was like to nurse Mr Johnson she could say “love him or hate him he is a very charismatic man”.

“In a nutshell he was a pleasure to look after.”

In April 2021, “mentally and physically burnt out”, Ms McGee resigned.

Before coming home she completed a couple of stints working in ICU in the Caribbean.

It was time the public got behind nurses and supported better pay and working conditions for them, she said.

“[Nurses] really are the backbone of any healthcare organisation and we have been the soldiers of this pandemic.”

“Lots of doctors that I have worked with have commented on how nurses really took the hit, really made the sacrifices and took the brunt of the workload.”

Nursing was one of the most trusted professions, and New Zealand had a nursing crisis.

“It can’t attract or retain staff.

“Look at me. I am someone who should be enticed home, highly skilled and experienced but as things stand I cannot afford to live here.”