An interview with the associate member and support worker, and ‘team anchor’, playing a pivotal role in unusual times
Daniel Allen writes:
Steve Robertson sounds like a man who’s good in a crisis. Calm, measured, thoughtful, he explains his role in the coronavirus pandemic in ways that suggest he has taken it in his stride.
Steve is a physiotherapy support worker at East Surrey Hospital in Redhill, part of Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust. But, as he explains, his experience within and beyond the NHS is long and varied, and has spanned intensive care, mental health and pulmonary rehab. He has had a separate career as a personal trainer and as director of a fitness education company, and has also written books and newspaper articles on health and fitness.
Then last year he took the decision to return full-time to the health service. ‘As I’ve got older I’ve realised I can’t be jumping around the fitness studio 24/7,’ he says. ‘Plus, I missed the NHS so I applied to come back.’
Quick to respond
He was considered for two jobs, at band 3 and band 4. He didn’t get the band 3 role but was offered the band 4 in an acute respiratory team. So he sold his business and returned to the health service full-time. ‘I’ve dedicated myself to the NHS now,’ he says.
And that long and wide-ranging experience has served him well during the coronavirus crisis. When the pandemic hit, his trust was quick to respond once the seriousness of the situation had been fully grasped. ‘A structure started coming into play and several wards were made ready for an influx of very sick patients,’ says Steve.
Senior physios were tasked with supporting staff and patients in intensive care and high dependency units, while Steve and his support worker colleagues were left to ‘hold the fort’, as he describes it, on other wards.
Into the mix as well came a number of physios redeployed from roles in the community or other areas such as MSK or private practice.
At that point, Steve’s experience running his own company and leading and employing others kicked in, with his fellow support workers also stepping up to ensure the redeployed physios could maximise their input.
‘Obviously they were unfamiliar with the wards so that’s where the support workers really came into their own. In that sort of situation, we had a lot more knowledge.’
And what of the patients, many of whom were ‘step-downs’ from intensive care?
‘They were very, very poorly,’ Steve says. ‘In the beginning, as the wards were trying to sort themselves out, coronavirus hit like a bombshell. Obviously we had never dealt with that kind of situation.’
Getting on with the job
Arrangements at first were ‘a bit pickled’, he says, mildly, but they quickly became more organised as testing arrangements were sorted and ward bays designated positive or negative according to patients’ Covid-19 test results.
An additional complication in trying to organise a robust, structured response to the pandemic was personal protective equipment (PPE), the subject of widespread publicity when it became clear that supplies were, in some areas, inadequate. But Steve took it all on the chin. And his trust was more fortunate than some in that it had a good supply of full PPE.
‘At the end of the day, we had a job to do. You hear on the news people saying that if things are too bad they may not treat patients. But in fact the patients are very, very ill, knocking on death’s door in some cases, so you just get on and protect yourself as much as you can.’
He later developed mild symptoms – ‘headaches, temperature, very lethargic’ – and after self-isolating they soon passed and his test came back negative.
But did he have any concerns for his own safety?
‘Throughout my life I’ve been the sort of person who, if someone is in need, I will try and help. Obviously if I didn’t have any protection, I wouldn’t go into a positive bay – I wouldn’t put myself at that sort of risk.
But if you’ve got the skills, and people need those skills, then you give – it’s as simple as that.’
Sustained rehab is needed
The situation in UK hospitals has eased since the terrifying death rate from coronavirus peaked in April. But, as Steve points out, many patients are still suffering and ICUs, where the workload remains high and stressful, still have people on ventilators.
And patients stepped-down from intensive care, who in some cases have been ventilated for weeks, still need sustained, expert rehabilitation if previous levels of health are to be restored.
‘Just trying to get some patients to sit on the edge of the bed is a major effort for them, let alone standing up and walking,’ says Steve. ‘Then there’s the cognitive side of things where they just don’t know what happened to them in ICU – that’s a total blank.
‘The ICU team do diaries for them and keep the family informed so they can piece together the part of their life that’s missing. But some people still have slight neuro issues. And some also have hallucinations and weird dreams. There’s a lot that goes on.’
Has he changed as a result of witnessing the effects of the pandemic first-hand?
‘I would say my compassion has grown for these patients who, frankly, have been through hell. The pandemic has shown us how delicate the human body is.
‘And I’m even more thankful for the NHS and the fact that it’s able to supply these sort of skills and knowledge freely to patients. In other countries, if you haven’t got the money, where do you go, what do you do?’
He adds: ‘We’re so, so fortunate.’
Supporting the support workers
A new CSP associate member reference group was getting off the ground as the pandemic hit. With priorities lying elsewhere, so far only one virtual meeting has been possible, with about ten associate members joining from around the country.
‘The first meeting was about introducing ourselves and to discuss how we were all coping,’ says Steve.‘We were then going to start working on our agenda at the next meeting and on getting more recognition so people get to know who we are and what we do. We would have been more structured at this point if the pandemic hadn’t happened.’
Steve is currently working on a career structure for support workers ‘so they don’t just hit band 4 and that’s it’.
‘We’ve got some very talented band 4s who don’t want to go to university but who don’t want to be earning just £22,000 a year.
‘I’m trying to shape a business plan in our trust, be a voice for support workers and show there is a need for a band 5 or band 6 support worker based on skills.’
Read about the CSP support worker reference group
The CSP says:
‘Steve’s contribution to the Covid-19 response in his trust demonstrates the impact of skilled and experienced support workers at this time. His actions and behaviours show that leadership capability transcends job titles and grades. I hope members reading this recognise the importance of empowering everyone to lead and recognise the particular ability of experienced support workers to do this.’
- Claire Fordham, CSP professional adviser
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