Working as a hospital cleaner, I've had to burn letters meant for loved ones

Four weeks ago, I was working on a film set as an extra for an upcoming TV series. Now, I’m working in a London hospital cleaning coronavirus wards and seeing things that you couldn’t possibly imagine.

When I was offered shifts through an agency, they admitted the work obviously wouldn’t be for everyone given the nature of it, but I felt up to the task.

At first, I didn’t feel worried. I was more concerned about keeping busy during lockdown and initially I was swamped with a feeling of pride that I was helping in some way. Not everyone could, because of their physical or mental health, but I felt lucky to be able to.

My shifts are from 3pm to 10pm and the work can vary from changing the bins on a ward to deep-cleaning a side room or a bay because either a patient has passed away with coronavirus or recovered and gone home.

On my first day, I almost went unprepared into a ward full of Covid-19 patients. Thankfully, I was stopped by the nurses on duty before I had the chance to risk my health – they helped get me into full personal protective equipment with eye protectors, gloves and gown.

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I was there to do a bit of general maintenance and put up a bay curtain. While I was doing it, I could hear a patient next to me being told by a doctor that they probably weren’t going to make it so they really needed to make contact with their family.

It was awful and shocking to hear, and that was the moment I realised my job was going to be a lot rougher than I thought it was going to be. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how that patient must have been feeling.

When it comes to keeping safe on the job there’s a couple of different face masks that are available, including the full-blown eye protectors. Initially I was concerned about how protected I really was, but after being surrounded by doctors and nurses who were wearing exactly the same thing, I figured I should be OK in mine.

It doesn’t stop me from feeling very aware of my own safety though.

When I go into a Covid ward to clean, it’s very noticeable if someone’s really ill. They’ll be coughing and you can see it in their eyes that they aren’t doing well. You take extra care to make sure you’re doing the job safely and quickly so that you’re in and out and not touching anything you don’t need to.

The cleaning store is near the morgue, where I’ve often seen porters pushing beds that are covered and know that there’s somebody who has lost their life to coronavirus underneath the sheet. It’s a wake-up call every single time as to just how serious the virus is and how fragile human life can be.

I’ve also walked into rooms to change bay curtains only to realise that the person I’m doing it for is lying dead in the bed. You just can’t prepare for that. It shows how precious life is and how easily things can just change – six months ago I certainly didn’t think this would be my job or that I would be seeing things like this on a daily basis.

I’ll go into a ward and clean two or three beds in a room of six with people who don’t necessarily look like they’re on death’s door but then the next day I’ll return and they’ve passed away.

Once, I went into a cupboard to clear it out and found a book with a letter inside, which the deceased patient had written for their family, simply saying, ‘I think this is the end, I love you’. The sad fact is that their family will never see that letter because we need to incinerate them if the patient has succumbed to Covid-19.

There are a lot of elderly patients on the wards and those with memory loss and dementia don’t realise why they’re there or how dangerous their symptoms are, let alone how contagious they are.

I’ve had a patient accuse me of stealing his jacket because he wants to leave. You can’t help but think that they’re almost lucky to not know the extent of what’s happening.

It’s not uncommon to see nurses in the corridors on their phones in tears because they’ve just watch another person lose their life to coronavirus.

One told me that she held the hands of upwards of 20 people as they passed on in just one month alone – the emotional strength that that must take is unfathomable.

For a lot of people it’s their biggest fear to die alone. With coronavirus, that’s a stark reality.

Because of strict visiting and lockdown measures not at all family members are allowed to be there. If you’re at risk, you aren’t getting in. It creates challenges that nurses and doctors have to rise to to ensure that people are comfortable as they pass on.

There’s always a fear that you’re going to get – especially when you’re sitting on a bus going to work in a hospital. I try not to overthink it too much, I’m trying to focus on the job at hand, while doing everything I can to stay safe.

When I finish a shift it’s a case of switching off from what’s happened and what I’ve seen. I’ve muted people on social media who I know aren’t following social distancing measures, as it can become overwhelming when you’re seeing the affects of what not obeying the government restrictions can cause.

However, it’s not all terror in my work.

The last job of the night on my most recent shift was cleaning a maternity ward. You could hear babies crying and it suddenly felt so reassuring that life goes on.

It’s not a fun time right now, there’s so much death and harshness in this pandemic but down that corridor, for one family, their whole lives were changing for the better – it’s the happiest day of their life.

This week we’ve begun to deep clean wards after they’ve been turned from corona wards back to ‘normal wards’ and it feels like the pressure is lowering a tiny bit at a time.

Even so, we as a society, still have to take social distancing and lockdown measures as seriously as ever. I’ve seen first hand how someone can feel fine one minute then two days later they’re lying in the intensive care unit. A few days after that I might be cleaning the bed they died in.

My job means I’m watching the NHS work under unimaginable strain – and if you could see the things I have, you’d do anything not to add to it.

As told to Dayna McAlpine

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