Here’s what healthcare workers in Sweden are saying about the coronavirus

Here's what healthcare workers in Sweden are saying about the coronavirus
Intensive care nurse Anna Helmerson outside Karolinska University hospital. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
Sweden's doctors and nurses are on the front line in the fight against the coronavirus, working long and difficult shifts and preparing for an unprecedented situation. Here's what some of them have to say.

The nurse manning 1177 phone lines: 'We've had to take a lot of anger and upset'

Nurse Sofia Berggren is one of those at the other end of medical helpline 1177, which is the first port of call for many people in Sweden seeking medical advice.

“In the beginning there were lots of phonecalls from people who were worried because, for example, they had a neighbour who had Asian appearance and they wondered if they could get infected by them. We found that there was quite a racist tendency,” she told the TT newswire. “Then there was more focus on winter break travellers who had been in the Alps, and people from Iran.”

Many people have called the number to ask if they can be tested for the coronavirus. As is the case around the world, in Sweden there are not sufficient tests to offer them to everyone with relevant symptoms, so seriously ill people and healthcare workers have been given priority.

“We have had to take a lot of anger and upset. But now I'd say that it's calmed down a bit. People have a lot of understanding of the fact that the healthcare sector has been brought to its knees.”

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The intensive care nurse: 'It's under control, but it's really hard'

“It's under control, but it's really hard on several levels,” intensive care nurse Anna Helmerson told the TT newswire.

Helmerson works at the Karolinska University Hospital.

“It's really tough going into these Covid rooms. You're closed in for hours in a blanket of plastic, a breathing mask, and a visor which squeezes. You can't breathe properly, it squeezes your nose and there's pressure everywhere,” she said. 

Another thing that's tough for staff is knowing that the ban on hospital visits introduced to limit the spread of infection means that the most ill patients cannot get support from their loved ones.

“It's awfully hard. With the Covid patients, but also for the other patients who are also being cared for in the department as usual. They're still there, and their relatives can't come.”

She said that even if older people are the most severely affected by the new virus, it's important for everyone to understand that young people can get very sick as well.

“We've gone up to working 12.5 hours, splitting the day into two shifts instead of three. We do this to be able to do more. With the same staff that previously had 20 beds, we now have around three times as many. It's working thus far. But we don't know if this is the eye of the storm or if it will get worse.”


Photo of Uppsala University Hospital: Tomas Oneborg / SvD / TT

The doctors in a tourist spot: 'Look after yourself and us, and stay home'

Eight local doctors in the Jämtland region signed an open letter to ski tourists in regional newspaper Östersunds-Posten published on March 28th, asking people to comply with Public Health Agency recommendations and avoid all non-essential travel.

Easter usually brings thousands of extra tourists to the region for winter sports — a 60 percent increase of the year-round population. Many of Sweden's ski resorts have since opted to close, but authorities have not yet issued a ban on travel, although avoiding non-essential travel is a key part of the current Public Health Agency guidelines.

“In normal years, we are equipped to receive the increased health care that this population increase generates in the form of appendicitis, heart attacks and respiratory infections, but also bone fractures, head injuries and the other major bodily injuries that winter activities can cause,” the doctors wrote.

“We like the mountains and we like winter tourism, that's why we live here. We know that no one goes to the mountains with the goal of getting sick, but we also know that every year we deal with a not insignificant number of tourists at our healthcare centres.

“Usually we will gladly pick you up by helicopter, take care of you with a ventilator, treat you quickly in our specially equipped injury rooms, operate on you successfully, arrange transport by helicopter to your home region's hospital, but this year it looks different.

“This year you will come to an already strained healthcare sector where the staff who are on site correspond to the low season and where the opportunities to take care of you are limited. So look after yourself and us and stay home this spring. Welcome back after the storm.”


Gondolas at a ski resort in Åre. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

The nurse working with elderly patients: 'I'm not a superhero'

In a Facebook post which has been liked and shared thousands of times, a nurse named Emma shared a photo of her gloved hand holding an elderly patient's hand. She wrote: “Dear Diary, Today I have had my toughest shift yet as a nurse.

“I have been relocated to a department that only accepts elderly patients and those with multiple illnesses infected with Covid-19. The department is full. And the referrals are in long queues. The ambulance staff is in gas masks waiting to hand over another patient. Relatives call and cry on the phone.

“All my patients have difficulty breathing and require oxygen. One currently has 12 litres of oxygen (you get ten litres after a cardiac arrest) and still cannot oxygenate properly. When you have difficulty breathing, you get anxiety and panic.

“I feel completely helpless. I'm not a superhero that everyone claims. I am an ordinary girl who with my two arms tries to do everything I can to prevent you from dying. I have tension headaches from my visor and the mouthguard has given me pressure sores on my nose.

“My dear, fragile patient. I know you won't cope with this. And I see in your eyes that you know it too.”

File photo of a corridor in Uddevalla hospital. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

The flight attendant-turned-care worker: 'I'm proud, but it's also scary'

Some of those working in the healthcare sector are brand new to the role. Thousands of employees who were temporarily laid off by airline SAS, following global travel bans, are now undergoing fast-track training to be able to join the fight against the coronavirus by working in the care sector.

Rasmus Saveman is one of around 300 going through the intensive re-training. Flight attendants already have some medical training, so the three-day crash course covers topics such as infectious disease spread and patient privacy. It also covers techniques such as safely moving patients who are lying in bed or in a wheelchair, as well as feeding and brushing the teeth of those they care for.

“I feel proud to do this and it's fun, but also scary. We're prepared for a lot in our job but this is completely new ground,” he told TT. 

As for what he's most nervous about, Saveman said: “Getting a responsibility I'm not used to. I'm very used to responsibility, but for things that I have had a lot of training in. Here, I'm not at all sure of the routines. And of course you're a bit worried of getting in the way, that instead of helping you slow down the work. At the same time, I think you learn a lot on the job.”

What should you be doing to help reduce the rate of infection?

In Sweden, the official advice requires everyone to:

  • Stay at home if you have any cold- or flu-like symptoms, even if they are mild and you would normally continue life as normal. Stay at home until you have been fully symptom-free for at least two days.
     
  • Practise good hygiene, by regularly and thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, using hand sanitiser when that’s not possible, and covering any coughs and sneezes with your elbow.
     
  • Keep distance from all other people when in public places. That includes shops, parks, museums, and on the street, for example. The World Health Organisation recommends keeping at least a 1.5-2 metre distance.
     
  • Avoid large gatherings, including parties, weddings, and other activities.
     
  • Work from home if you can. Employers have been asked to ensure this happens where possible.
     
  • Avoid all non-essential travel, both within and outside Sweden. That includes visits to family, planned holidays, and any other trips that can be avoided.
     
  • If you have to travel, avoid busy times such as rush hour if you can. This reduces the number of people on public transport and makes it easier for people to keep their distance.
     
  • If you are over 70 or belong to a high-risk group, you should stay at home and reduce all social contacts. Avoid going to the shops (get groceries delivered or try to find someone who can help you), but you can go outside if you keep distance from other people. Read more about the help available to those in risk groups here.
     
  • By following these precautions, we can all help to protect those who are most at risk and to reduce the rate of infection, which in turn reduces the burden on Sweden's healthcare sector.
     
  • Read more detail about the precautions we should all be taking in this paywall-free article. Advice in English is also available from Sweden's Public Health Agency and the World Health Organisation.

 


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