'There is light at the end of the tunnel'
When Dr Mark Sheehy says that he is hoping for a “calmer 2021”, it’s not hard to see why.
A respiratory consultant at Midlands Regional Hospital Mullingar, for most of this year Dr Sheehy and his colleague Dr Sean Glynn have been spearheading the hospital’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr Sheehy stepped into his new role when the scale of the challenge facing the health system became apparent in late February and early March. Those early days when they were dealing with a virus that little was known about and Westmeath had one of the highest incidence rates in the country were challenging for everyone at the hospital, Dr Sheehy says.
“It was a condition we hadn’t seen before. We had obviously read about the original SARS virus a number of years ago, but when you are seeing people become very sick very quickly we were concerned about the patients themselves, the staff was concerned about whether there would be enough PPE – in February/March there was a concern globally that there would be enough PPE for everybody. Healthcare workers in general worried that this could cause problems in our own homes. It was a concerning time.”
During the first months of the pandemic, Dr Sheehy and his colleagues were on a steep learning curve when it came to finding out what treatments were effective against the virus. Those lessons were put to good use when the second wave hit in September.
“When people come into hospital and they are acutely unwell with this, we are far better able to manage patients. We are far better able to predict who we think is going to deteriorate and who is going to improve. There are better therapies now. We were trying therapies in March and April with very little evidence or proof that they worked. Now there is very good evidence and proof that various treatments work, so there are a lot more therapies available to us.
“We are a lot better at managing oxygen levels. Even a simple thing like knowing that if we lie people on their front, they do better with their oxygen levels and if people need to be on a ventilator machine, we are able to manage them slightly better.”
In addition to new Covid patients, eight months into the pandemic Dr Sheehy and his team are also now treating people suffering from long term symptoms that are lasting for months. It has been estimated that around one in 20 people who contract the virus suffer from “long Covid”.
Perhaps understandably given the manner in which Covid-19 has altered people’s lifestyles, there has been a lot more chatter on social media and elsewhere in recent months about Covid-19 being little worse than flu. Dr Sheehy says that it is hard for medical professionals not to get frustrated when they hear talk like that.
“It is different to other conditions we’ve had. It is more contagious than certain other types of viruses we’ve dealt with in the past. People can become ill with it in different ways, from the chest point of view but also inflammation in the heart. Also, sometimes on rare occasions blood vessels in the brain can be affected.”
The recent news that a number of vaccines are months if not weeks away from being rolled around the globe is something to celebrate after a difficult year, he says.
“It really is a light at the end of the tunnel from the point of view that the data they released to the newspapers seems to be very positive. Ninety percent is more effective that you would expect from this type of vaccine. Scientifically, it is a new method of doing a vaccine and looks very effective. Hopefully that will come into Ireland in the next number of months.
“It is still important for everyone to be aware that before the vaccine comes in, we have to keep the virus as low a level as we can.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the year and start of 2021 while we wait for the delivery of a vaccine, Dr Sheehy believes that if people follow the simple rules relating to hand hygiene, social distancing and reducing personal contacts, the number of cases can be kept relatively low.
“Stay the course. There is light at the end of the tunnel. If the vaccine is as good as it seems to be, then it is really about the logistics of getting it to the community.”
While no amount of medical training can prepare you for a pandemic, the threat posed by Covid-19 brought the best out of the staff in the hospital and across the HSE, Dr Sheehy says.
“As a hospital we came together very quickly with very good team work from hospital management, nursing staff, medical staff, to healthcare assistants and catering staff. Everyone came together to come up with solutions for any problems that we saw coming. We changed parts of the hospital very quickly and it happened at a pace that I hadn’t seen in the HSE before.
“We had a new separate Covid emergency department. A ward previously used for something else was transformed within seven to 10 days. There were no problems from any of the staff. They were working longer hours and weekends. Everyone wanted to do what they could.”
Covid-19 has presented healthcare professionals across the world with a once in a century challenge, and Dr Sheehy says that response from the staff at Midlands Regional Hospital Mullingar has been “fantastic”.
“Locally I have been really proud to work in this hospital. Everyone in the hospital has teamed together and worked really well. Everyone has done their best. A lot of people have been in PPE for long hours every day without complaint, and it’s been humbling to be part of that.”