Covid front line: East Lancashire matron recounts 'heartbreaking' early days of the pandemic

Dedicated matron Sarah Caton has been named a 'Doorstep Hero' in a new campaign to honour NHS sacrifices during the pandemic.

By Dominic Collis
Tuesday, 24th August 2021, 3:45 pm

Sarah, who has worked in East Lancashire for 34 years, described caring for the area's Covid patients as “emotionally tough”, with many not surviving during the area’s toughest periods.

When soaring Covid numbers meant her ward became an intensive care unit, Sarah, then a ward manager, and her team had to learn a whole new skillset to deal with the heartbreaking cases they faced.

Now a matron for Pendle and Clitheroe Community Hospitals, she was delighted to be named ELHT&Me’s first ever Doorstep Hero.

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Matron Sarah Caton

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sarah was manager on ward C9, a medical ward at the Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital.

As cases started to rise, the ward was turned into a Covid assessment unit before becoming an additional intensive care unit, enabling the hospital to cater for the sheer number of patients being admitted in a serious condition.

Sarah said: “The hospital was getting really busy and we were asked to increase capacity of the intensive care unit by adapting other wards to become intensive care wards."

The new working environment meant staff drafted in to support intensive care units had to learn whole new ways of working.

“It’s a whole new skillset, but we were supported by the ICU team who were happy to teach us what we needed to know and support us,” she added.

The situation was harrowing, Sarah said, with little known about the spread of Covid and the scale of the problem in the early days. She and her husband took the decision to stay away from relatives from March until July so that Sarah could protect both her patients and family.

“To be working on the frontline was emotionally tough, trying to support patients and other members of my team, who were dispersed in the ICU. It was challenging and heartbreaking at times seeing patients suffering and caring for those who didn’t survive.”

There were happier times too, however, when patients did pull through and became well enough to be sent home, and also seeing the public's support.

Sarah said: “ICU became really good at rehabilitating patients so that by the time they were on the wards they could be discharged after only a short time, and we used to clap them off the wards.

“Some still keep in touch with the wards to show how grateful they are.

"I did go out clapping on the doorstep every week and it made me cry and feel really proud to do what I do."

Denise Gee, manager of ELHT&Me, said: “Sarah is an extremely worthy recipient of our Doorstep Hero accolade and I’m so pleased to be able to show our gratitude for the contribution she made during the pandemic. We all know the sacrifices made by our NHS but I think it’s hugely important that we share with the community some of the individual stories of how East Lancashire coped with the pandemic.”

In Sarah’s current role, which she started in October, she has responsibility for two wards at Pendle and one at Clitheroe, supporting ward managers and ensuring good quality patient care.

Of ELHT&Me’s work to support staff, charity manager Denise said: “From the scale of the charity paying £2.5m to fund robotic surgery to simple things like providing a toaster for staff, what we do is so wide-ranging across the Trust and we need the community to continue supporting us so we can do even more.”

ELHT&Me’s next event is the Big NHS Walk, an eight-mile challenge on September 26, which can also be completed virtually.

To nominate an ELHT employee for the Doorstep Heroes campaign visit https://elht.nhs.uk/charity/doorstep-heroes

To support ELHT&Me or enter the Big NHS Walk, visit the website at https://elht.nhs.uk/charity