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Mental Health Nurse shares her experiences of shielding and returning to work during COVID-19

Posted: 21/07/20

Kate Chartres, a Mental Health Nurse Consultant working in Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust’s Psychiatric Liaison Team at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, has shared her experiences of shielding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A positive outlook

Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2019, and was still undergoing chemotherapy when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK. This meant she was in the ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ category, as the treatment suppressed her immune system making the potential consequences of catching the virus much more severe, and started shielding in March.

Looking back on the past five months, Kate says shielding was “much better than expected”. She describes herself as a ‘social butterfly,’ energised by being around other people – usually a big part of her job – so she was nervous at the prospect of suddenly being stuck at home.

Kate went into shielding with a positive outlook, and thinks this has been key to how well she has coped. “You get more of what you focus on,” she says, “so if you focus on the positives that’s what grows. I chose to focus on the positive.”

The uncertainty of everything has been difficult at times, but Kate has taken a pragmatic approach and focussed on what she can practically do to look after herself, like wearing a mask on hospital visits even before official guidance was brought in. Kate has recommended the website www.wellbeingandcoping.net to friends and patients, which guides you through making a ‘wellbeing plan’. www.Stayingsafe.net is another useful site which people can use to make a ‘safety plan,’ to use if they find themselves struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Practicing what we preach

Being a Mental Health Nurse, Kate felt it was important to ‘practice what she preaches’. She made sure she had a clear routine and structure to her days, always getting washed and dressed (even just into fresh PJs) and eating regular, healthy meals.

Regular exercise is often recommended to combat the side-effects of chemotherapy, so the limitations of shielding were difficult; but rather than feeling defeated, Kate found alternatives that she could do at home, especially yoga.

Mindfulness is just being in the moment and focussing on right now; if you’re in the moment, you can’t be distressed about a future that hasn’t happened yet or be upset about a past event.

Kate often teaches mindfulness to patients, and describes it as “being in the moment and focussing on right now; if you’re in the moment, you can’t be distressed about a future that hasn’t happened yet or be upset about a past event. It’s about re-focussing your attention to the moment and concentrating on one thing at a time.” She suggests simple breathing exercises, counting flowers in the garden, or even mindfully dancing to your favourite tune!

SunflowerThe key to mindfulness, Kate says, is on focussing on what you’re doing at that moment: “When you get distracting thoughts – which everybody does – like ‘this is stupid,’ or ‘I feel a bit odd doing this,’ you just allow them to float by like clouds and focus back on the thing that you’re doing.” Kate recommends the apps Headspace and Calm for those who want a bit of help getting started with mindfulness.

Some have used lockdown to start new hobbies or reawaken old ones, such as painting and gardening. Kate has spent much more time in her garden and has grown plants from seeds for the first time, after a friend told her how restorative nurturing them could feel.

Time to slow down and take stock

Lockdown has also had the unexpected benefit, for some, of being an opportunity to find new motivation to look after our wellbeing. Kate explains that for the last decade she had often been working 60 hour weeks, but the time off due to her treatment and shielding has forced her to take stock. “The experience of being isolated from friends and family while going through chemotherapy has been life-changing in many ways. It’s given me an opportunity to really think about what’s important in my life, to slow down, and consider how I can look after myself and maintain a healthy work-life balance.”

It’s given me an opportunity to really think about what’s important in my life, to slow down, and consider how I can look after myself and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Kate’s manager and the rest of her team were in regular contact with her, but after her chemotherapy treatment ended she was thrilled at the prospect of going back to work at the start of July to see them all properly. The Trust’s Occupational Health service has supported Kate’s return to work after her immune system had recovered from the effects of chemotherapy, but as a precaution she will not be able to go in A&E or see COVID-positive patients for a while.

Returning to the ‘big wide world’

Anxious about returning to the ‘big wide world’ after shielding for months, Kate soon realised that social media had given her an extreme view of how things were. “I thought everywhere would be full of people running wild, disregarding guidance, spreading the virus and putting people at risk,” she said, “but the truth of it is, most people are generally being very sensible.”

“I’m still being cautious, as there remains a real risk that my immune system might not cope well if faced with COVID-19. But I’m focussing on the highlights of having more freedom now – daily walks on the beautiful North East coastline, getting out on my bike (albeit very, very slowly!) and this summer’s first paddle in the sea.”

I’m taking proper breaks, going for walks at lunchtime – it’s so important to actually follow all the wellbeing advice that we give to others, and look after ourselves properly too.

Kate is adamant that now she is returning to work, her experiences in lockdown will change how she looks after herself. “I’m taking proper breaks, going for walks at lunchtime – it’s so important to actually follow all the wellbeing advice that we give to others, and look after ourselves properly too,” she says. “Although I’ve had some very difficult life experiences over the past year, I believe they have helped me to grow and actually become a better nurse, because I understand so many things much better now.”