Coronavirus: Heroism, heartbreak and despair inside a Covid-19 intensive care unit

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Inside the Royal Liverpool Hospital's red covid ward, seven staff members are huddled closely around a bed.

Clad in gowns, masks and secure visors, the team are preparing for a difficult moment.

There's a man lying in the bed, unconscious and unable to breathe on his own. He arrived at the hospital, having contracted covid-19, around 10 days ago and his condition has deteriorated quickly, Liverpool Echo reports.

He is just 49-years-old, and a nurse tells me he had no previous health issues before he was struck down with the virus – looking at him now it is clear his chances of survival are fading fast.

The team are preparing to flip the man over onto his front in a technique known as proning.

Inside the Royal Liverpool Hospital's red covid ward
(Image: Andrew Teebay/Liverpool Echo)

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The idea is that by turning a patient onto their stomach you can potentially improve the distribution of air into the lungs.

For patients like this man, who has already been on a mechanical ventilator, the supine position – lying on your back – can see the lungs compressed by gravity and other forces and can be detrimental.

I ask the nurse how long he will be left lying on his front, and she tells me it is 16 hours a time.

But this will actually be the fourth time they have done this with this patient – it is very clear that this is a final throw of the dice.

I'm invited closer to see the specialist technique the staff use which involves wrapping the man – who is not small in stature – tightly in his sheets and twisting them round to form a grip.

Then on the count of three they lift together and slowly turn his motionless body over onto his front – it is a difficult thing to watch, let alone actually do.

Two team members treating a patient
(Image: Andrew Teebay/Liverpool Echo)

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One of the nurses points out to me how the man's face is swollen and bloated having already spent so much time lying on his front.

I ask her what his chances of survival are. 'Not good', she replies, with a resigned expression.

She tells me that at the height of the first wave of covid-19, an entire 'proning team' was employed at the hospital because so many patients were arriving that needed to be turned over as they fought for survival – it is a lengthy and draining process for staff.

Behind me there is a woman lying in her bed. She seems disorientated.

My eyes are drawn to a collage of pictures on the wall directly above her head – photos of smiling faces and happy times.

One of the cruellest things about this disease is that people who are fighting for their lives are unable to do so in the company of the people they love the most.

Some of the team members
(Image: Andrew Teebay/Liverpool Echo)

The intensive care nurses have tried to do the next best thing by inviting friends and family to send pictures in to be displayed around the beds of their loved ones – they know it doesn't compare but they have to try something.

A nurse points out that one of the pictures on the board is of the woman herself, a smile stretching across her face and her arms slung casually around a young relative – she looks completely different to the lady gasping for air in the bed next to me.

As we move into the next room the scenes don't get any easier to watch.

A 57-year-old man lies contorted in his bed, a ventilator doing all the work of breathing on his behalf.

I'm told that 10 days ago he was working at a restaurant in the city, fit and active with no health worries – now he can no longer breathe on his own.

There is another glum look from the staff when I ask about his chances of survival – they've seen too much this year to expect anything other than the worst.

Clad in gowns, masks and secure visors, the team are prepared
(Image: Andrew Teebay/Liverpool Echo)

They find it hard to believe that some people believe this virus hasn't gone away – or that it isn't as serious as suggested.

I'm told about the taxi driver who died with his 10-year-old son watching through the nearby door, hands pressed helplessly against the glass.

Then there was the 55-year-old lady who was sat up in her chair making all the doctors and nurses laugh with her stories who suddenly deteriorated and died the next day.

You can't get used to these experiences and they have clearly taken a huge mental toll on the remarkable staff working in this under-pressure unit.

What came across vividly during my time in the unit was the incredible bond that exists between these staff members, the way they were relying on each other to keep spirits up and get through the traumatic scenes playing out in front of them on a daily basis.

But they need our help.

You can't get much more palpable evidence that this virus is still with us than what I witnessed in the Royal's Intensive Care Unit.

Yes Liverpool's infection rate has dropped and the worn out hospital staff are not treating quite as many people as they were in October – but every day people are still coming into this unit and every day people here are dying painful and lonely deaths.

Fit people, healthy people, people who have never been seriously ill before are suddenly finding themselves gasping for air and hooked up to ventilators as this vicious virus attempts to drain the life from their body.

As I was looking over at one patient, a man lying with a specialist helmet around his head pumping oxygen into his fragile and motionless body, one of the nurses turned to me to say: "People need to realise that this could happen to anyone, these people weren't expecting this to happen to them.

"The virus is still here and we need people to do the right things."

She's not wrong – we owe them that at least.

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