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Dentistry student volunteering on Covid-19 frontline

Read Talullah's blog about her experience volunteering at her local hospital to help on COVID-19 wards.

Tallulah Hall graduated from her Dentistry BDS degree at Queen Mary University of London in 2021. In this blog, she talks about her experience during the pandemic volunteering at her local hospital to help on COVID-19 wards, getting to know the patients, and learning from her inspiring colleagues.

"When returning home to Kent after clinic cancellations, swapping my tunic for scrubs was not the initial plan. I had packed one tiny suitcase with revision books –on loan from Whitechapel library– and a variety of pyjamas, serving as my revision period uniform, on the premise that I’d return to London for exams the following week. As the severity of the pandemic worsened, dental students were inundated with daily emails delaying our return, until a confirmation arrived confirming that all clinics and exams were cancelled until further notice. Fast forward two months, and I’m beginning to resent the humble contents of my little suitcase.

By the second day of lockdown I was searching for jobs to occupy my unexpected free time, knowing I had some relevant skills from university which could be applied in tackling the crisis. By day three, I had a phone interview with the Whitstable and Tankerton hospital and already by day four I was donning scrubs for my first shift. The urgency at which I was hired highlighted the NHS’s dire need for support during this time.

Within the first week of my job, I saw a vast and continuous influx of new starters alongside myself. I was eagerly welcomed into an eclectic and chaotic new work family, surrounded by pharmacists and physiotherapists, nurses and nutritionists, and doctors and dental students. There was a warming unity in the fight against an invisible enemy.

Each patient brings both challenges and quirks

Some of my roles consist of assisting staff in the deep cleaning of COVID patient bays and helping to feed and move compromised, vulnerable patients. The hospital belongs to the community health trust, so our primary patient base is from previous acute care, where patients are medically stable but require further rehabilitation. In a once relaxed clinical environment, the wards have now been sectioned off as “COVID” and “Non-COVID” areas, as patients are constantly moved between hospitals and care homes based on unstable and changing conditions.

I learned early on in my dental degree that the human nature of our profession means no day is the same, and the diversity of my new role is no different! Each patient brings with them their own challenges and quirks, brightening my day in a time overcast with anxiety, fear and uncertainty. From the gentleman in bed four who sings Bugsy Malone “…My name is Tallulah…” each time I walk past, to the lady in bed nine with a fascination for shoes, presenting to me her latest magazine cut-outs and critiquing my choice of trainers each day (which I alternate just for her amusement).

Unwelcome uncertainty

A love of patient interaction and familiarity was a huge factor in my desire to become a dentist, and this skill of balancing a medical relationship with one of trust and genuine care with the patients is something I’ve brought into my new role. However, there is now an underlying sourness in learning about patient’s interests, personalities and personal lives - after only a single day away from the ward, I can return to find a once-filled bed now empty, and wondering the outcome of each patient’s care.

Regardless, each day I have been fascinated and inspired by the strength and diligence of my new colleagues. I have seen nurses attacked by confused patients, with a devastating mix of Coronavirus and mental illness. I have seen healthcare assistants carry on with their tasks, hours after being moved to tears when relaying final goodbyes between patients and their family members who are unable to be with them in the hospital. Under layers of head-to-toe PPE, we’ve had to re-learn the art of communication, substituting the comfort of hand-holding and smiles for squinted eyes and a soft tone of voice.

The COVID Rainbow

The rainbow symbol fills windows on my daily walk to work and numerous copies have been plastered on the hospital walls as a symbol of hope and solidarity. Volunteering during the pandemic has shown me a vulnerability yet fortitude in the patients affected and the staff helping to treat them. I am grateful to have an opportunity to work alongside such resilient characters, and now a platform on which to share my experiences with such incredible people." 

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