Dr Manreet Nijjar, consultant in infectious diseases and acute medicine, was just one month into his post when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. He spoke to us about his pivotal role during the pandemic and how accessing psychological therapies is helping him cope with the immense pressure he found himself under.
As a consultant in infectious diseases, I led the response of Whipps Cross Hospital to the Covid-19 pandemic. I was only one month in post when I began leading the response for the whole hospital. My day to day went from seeing patients in clinic with infectious diseases such as HIV, TB and Malaria, to working long days organising our response. This involved seeing Covid patients, zoning wards into Covid and non-Covid, training staff on how to put on PPE, figuring out where we were going to get the next batch of stock from and advising other departments such as maternity and paediatrics.
As someone who is trained in outbreak medicine, Covid-19 demonstrated the pinnacle of what my role could entail, but to actually experience it is something that no one could be fully prepared for.
At the start of the pandemic, I began to feel like I had more of an insight than most people into how bad this was going to be and just how much we needed to do to prepare. There were many challenges we needed to overcome and I, as I know many other people did, began to feel the pressure. I experienced feelings of guilt, that I may not have been doing enough for my team and that I could be doing better.
It was challenging and difficult for everyone as no one was ready for what was to come. I experienced my juniors crying, my nurses were scared, my consultant colleagues also cried. We had to make decisions we wouldn’t normally make and this began to take a toll.
Having been through the pandemic and having been so involved, it’s made me understand the need to look after your own mental wellbeing. I had moments where I cried but felt I couldn’t do this in front of other people as I wanted to protect my team. We have to remember that we went through something tremendous and it is so important to talk about how it has affected us – it’s ok to be upset – if I can admit that I struggled and if I can seek psychological support, you can too. We can support each other by being kind, open and listening to colleagues who sometimes just want to be heard.
We can also find that men generally don’t talk about things as much. I want to encourage those who wouldn’t normally speak out to do so. I am also of Asian background, so I understand the fear that my BAME colleagues may have felt. If you’re worried or feeling overwhelmed, please do seek the support you need.
I visited the first wellbeing hub that was set up at Whipps Cross Hospital and through that, I sought the help of psychological therapies. I have my second session with a counsellor this week. It’s important to deal with the emotions you are going through when you are ready. I already feel that counselling is helping me overcome my sense of guilt and frustration that my level of responsibility resulted in.
We didn’t always get things right during the pandemic. It was something none of us have ever experienced and we have to accept that. We can look at ways that we can better prepare for something like this again, but ultimately, the only thing we can make sure we always do is to be honest and be kind to each other.