Our healthcare heroes - life during a pandemic and beyond | Meet Sarah

Sarah Kirkness is a haematology clinical nurse specialist (CNS) at HCA Healthcare UK at University College Hospital. She spoke about the role CNS play and how they have continued to provide invaluable support during the height of the pandemic.

What did a typical day look like for you before the pandemic?

Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) offer specialist advice and support to patients, no matter what part of the cancer pathway they are on. We help patients and their relatives understand their diagnosis and treatment plan and coordinate all of their care. We give them our contact details and are their first point of contact if they have any concerns or want to talk anything through.  

To be a CNS you have to be able to understand a patient’s concerns and how their diagnosis and treatment might be affecting them so that you can offer them the right support at the right time. No two patients are the same, so the care we provide must be personalised too.  

Were you required to train or work in different areas?

During this time, I stepped in and completed tasks that I wouldn’t routinely do as a CNS while other team members were at home shielding – I cannulated patients, took blood and gave chemotherapy. I have also spent a lot more of my time on the phone with patients – not just answering queries and discussing next steps with them but calling each patient to ask them some screening questions before they came into hospital.   

Did your role change during the COVID-19 pandemic?

When the UK lockdown was enforced, whilst some blood cancer treatments went ahead as normal, some were paused and some chemotherapy regimens were modified to make them less aggressive in order to not make the patients who were receiving them overly immuno-suppressed in case they contracted COVID-19. 

Patients and their relatives understandably had a lot of questions during this time, so the team spent a lot of time on the phone, listening to their concerns and helping them get the right support.  

In terms of my physical placement, my role also changed as I moved to working from home and carrying out phone consultations with patients. However, due to me having a young baby at home who struggled with me being in the house but being busy at work, I volunteered to go back and work in the hospital throughout this time. That meant that for the patients who came in for treatment, they were still able to see me in person.  

What have you learnt about yourself and your team during the pandemic?

Delivering bad news to a patient can be so difficult, but doing it during a global pandemic where there is already so much uncertainty can be even more painful. It made me realise how much your own clinical colleagues help you during this time and how not having them there to support you after you’ve spoken to a patient can affect you. 

I also think it has been interesting to see how teams can adapt and pull together to provide the best possible care to patients. It has given me a real opportunity to understand other people's roles within the hospital and how they all slot into place around each other.  

What has shone through during this time is that even though patients might feel lonely not having their loved ones with them at an already difficult time, they are so incredibly understanding of these precautions, which makes our role a little easier too. 

How have your patients responded to the pandemic and the changes it has brought?

Unsurprisingly I was inundated with questions from patients at the beginning of the pandemic, ranging from ‘Will the pandemic affect my treatment plan?’ to ‘What will happen if I contract the virus?’ I think that the hardest part for us at the start of the pandemic was that we didn’t have all of the answers as we would normally, so that was really difficult. However, patients now feel more at ease as we’re able to better understand how patients with blood cancer respond to the virus and can therefore adapt the care we provide.  

What patients have also understandably found difficult is being diagnosed, undergoing treatment or experiencing a relapse and having to restart treatment without the support of their family and friends being in the hospital. Not being permitted to have visitors has meant that the support that we give the patients has become even more invaluable, so we try to spend as much time with them as possible.   
Watch this short video to learn more about the way HCA Healthcare UK has adapted the way healthcare is provided in its hospitals and clinics.  
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