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“What we do as vets does not compare to anyone working for the NHS, especially during a global pandemic”

01 October 2020, at 7:15am

I recently read a post on a veterinary Facebook page that got me pretty wound up and caused me to rewrite this piece almost immediately. In summary, the post was raising issue with the fact that NHS workers get discounts at certain places and vets do not. The post tried to compare jobs and suggested that vets had it harder during these times. Let me tell you, having experienced it first hand – what we do as vets does not compare to anyone working for the NHS, especially during a global pandemic.

I graduated in July, in the middle of some pretty strange and isolating times. Revision on my own was never my forte and a lot of us students were left fearful of what exams would mean for our futures. Thankfully, it worked out well for myself but equine jobs were hard to come by. As someone that’s never been very good at sitting still and doing nothing, I needed to find a job and I wanted to do something to benefit others.

My partner is a student paramedic and was aware of a large-scale recruitment that was taking place for our local NHS trust. In April I started working for the West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) NHS Trust as a 111 call handler. My job entailed answering calls, reassuring patients, assessing symptoms and either signposting or arranging further help for them. I figured telephone triage on human patients couldn’t be that difficult so jumped straight to it. Of course a large volume of the calls we received were COVID-19 related; I was expecting that. But even though the 111 service isn’t meant to be an emergency line, we did get a large volume of emergency calls – often when individuals did not ascertain the severity of their situation. This was certainly something that I did not expect.

During the peak of the pandemic there was a 300 percent increase in the call volume for WMAS. They have had to recruit over 1,000 staff members, doubling the amount of call handlers to cope with this increase. To help with the abundance of calls, 178 student paramedics also volunteered to step up to the front line. Can you imagine a 300 percent increase in your workload, almost overnight? All while being chronically underfunded, understaffed and with resources maxed out…

No. Because we as a profession providing a private healthcare service have not had to face this. We have not been on the “front line”. It is not the same for us. We have not had to put our lives and our family’s lives at risk on a daily basis, coming face-to-face with and caring for those individuals who were infected and critically unwell. At the time of writing, over 41,000 patients have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the UK alone (Public Health England and NHSX, 2020). Imagine having to phone those families and inform them? Those families who haven’t even been able to be with that loved one in their final hours. I understand that these have been challenging times for us all but our work as vets simply does not compare.

In my five months with the NHS I have had a lot of ups and downs. I have had the pleasure of meeting amazing colleagues who I now consider to be dear friends, I have cried so many tears of laughter and definitely pain and I have worked so many ungodly hours. I’ve been able to help patients in labour, have given CPR instructions for a three-year-old child and talked to people while in the darkest of times in their lives. I have no doubt that the number of mental health calls is rapidly increasing, with more and more individuals being home alone and financial worries mounting.

But for me, the hardest side of the job was dealing with the time wasters, the repeat callers and the abusive ones. While going through the training we were warned about this, but experiencing it first-hand was shocking. There were many shifts that I walked away from in utter disgust. I was sworn at, shouted at and called all the names under the sun. NHS workers are not there to be abused but it sadly happens very frequently. Despite this, overall it was a positive experience for me. I have grown as an individual, I am able to work much better under stress and I feel I have a much better appreciation for our NHS service on a whole.

Our NHS workers have definitely earned more than 10 percent off shopping during this pandemic. They deserve a whole lot more. We all clapped for our NHS and front-line workers during this pandemic. But frankly, what did that achieve? We all displayed our appreciation for their efforts, but what are we actually doing to help solve the problems that the NHS are facing? Our death rates would have been even more horrendous without it; we cannot let it continue on its knees.