'We were all on our knees': Staff at Chesterfield Royal Hospital look back on a busy 2021

  • Katy Rickitt was invited into Chesterfield Hospital to talk to staff about their experiences throughout the year

For Chesterfield Royal Hospital, it's been a busy year.

In response to the pandemic its emergency department was split into two: the red zone for covid patients and the green zone for non covid patients.

The ED also commandeered other parts of the hospital in order to accommodate the sheer volume of patients coming through the doors. 

What couldn't be expanded in the same way was the workforce, with staff simply having to work harder than ever before. 

The peak for this year came in February when the hospital housed more than 200 coronavirus patients on top of those presenting with other problems.

Chesterfield ICU at the height of the pandemic Credit: ITV Calendar

At that point, ED Sister Lena Plaweki says, staff were on their knees. "Every night I would go home and shower before I even spoke to anyone" she told me, "it was really really scary, the staff work so hard but we only have so many, we were all on our knees."

"It was horrible seeing people so ill" Clinical lead Dr Katherine Lendrum told me. "We were running two EDs and when you're doing that staff are stretched pretty thinly". Is she worried they could be stretched like that again? "Yes that's my concern" she says.

She's particularly worried that with Omicron so virulent, many staff will have to isolate, cutting the workforce further. 

As I speak to her she is taking details from a suspected stroke patient called Valerie Hill who is grateful and relieved to be seen well within the 4 hour target wait time. But of course it's those wait times that start to suffer the more covid cases rise. 

Credit: ITV Calendar

At the moment the hospital has 24 covid patients, 5 are in intensive care. They took in their first omicron case last week. They are "stretched but coping" according to Chief Executive Angie Smithson, who took over the hospital just 6 months before the pandemic hit.

But the headlines she's responded to have not always been positive. In September 2021 the hospital issued a release saying they were "full to capacity" and urged people to think twice before accessing emergency care.

They also recorded two patients waiting 12 hours or more on trolleys.  "We would never turn people who need urgent care away" says Angie "but we need people to think whether they need to be here and call 111 if unsure.'

She is worried about another wave of hospitalisations and has mental health support in place for staff who may struggle to cope.  She also admits wait times will inevitably go up if levels rise. It's important to point out that 88.9 percent of patients have been seen within 4 hours at Chesterfield Royal this year, compared to 61.2 percent nationally.  You can tell  that the breaches have been real low points for Angie and the staff here. 

Credit: ITV Calendar

In the entrance way of the hospital are recently installed ipads. They house a questionnaire for patients to check whether they are in the right place, directing non-emergency cases to more appropriate services. Ensuring only the right patients come through the door can have a huge impact on those wait times.

"The most ridiculous case I've dealt with is a woman who came in with long fingernails" recalls Dr Lendrum. "She simply wanted me to cut them for her, I'm a doctor and all I could do was give her a pair of scissors, that's hardly a reason to come to the ED. Then there was all the paperwork etc that meant I couldn't see another patient." 

During our filming we see everyone admitted getting covid checked and although the waiting room isn't heaving, staff all seem extremely busy. It's easy to see how the balance could tip. They are also nervous, what they witnessed earlier this year has clearly had a profound effect. 

At the end of October Sister Lena Plawecki went from virus battling to going viral, when her now husband got down on one knee at the hospital and proposed to her dressed as Richard Gere from an Officer and a Gentleman!

It was a lovely moment, but the truth behind it is what Lena witnessed made her and her partner realise life is short. Sadly she won't get much of a Christmas with him, between the 12 hour shifts.

Emergencies don't take a break, Covid doesn't take a break and therefore neither do many of the staff. They'll be working through and just ask that we do the best we can to help them help us.