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'To be honest, I nearly feel safer in work' - Kilkenny star on the front line in St Vincent's Hospital

Grace Walsh: ‘If we had the option of playing a championship and winning an All-Ireland, or our family and friends being healthy, I think we would all choose our family and friends being healthy.’

GRACE WALSH NORMALLY splits her life between Dublin and Kilkenny.

She lives in the capital and works as a clinical nurse in St Vincent’s Hospital, while she makes the journey home three times a week for inter-county camogie duty.

But amidst this Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, she’s rooted firmly on Dublin’s south side, avoiding contact with her family on Noreside and working tirelessly on the front line.

grace-walsh Kilkenny defender Grace Walsh. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Walsh answers the phone on Wednesday evening as her day off comes to a close, after some individual training to keep her ticking over and a walk up Killiney Hill. After 12-and-a-half hour shifts on Monday and Tuesday, she made the most of her time off before her attention switched to Thursday and Friday.

Leave the house before 6.30am, home after 9pm. Sleep. Repeat.

That’s her usual schedule anyway, and thankfully, work hasn’t been quite as hectic as expected — just yet — amidst the madness. 

“Before the whole coronavirus thing, I was on annual leave,” she tells The42. “Towards the end of it, it all started to kick off. I was dreading going into work because I was just afraid of what I was going to be walking into.

“Then I walked into work on the Monday and I had just calmed down completely, I just felt so safe in work. In fairness to Vincent’s Hospital, they had such a good set-up for it, and such a good plan in place.

To be honest, I nearly feel safer in work than I do when I’m at home or out and about because I know what I’m going into. I know each patient and I know if someone is going to have it, or if they don’t. You’re prepared for it.

The 26-year-old works on a vascular ward. There’s a high-dependency unit within, while the ward also cares for ear, nose and throat, and cardiothoracic patients.  

Last week consisted mainly of discharging those who were medically-fit to go home, or to nursing homes and convalescence. It was all happening earlier than usual, to get people out of hospitals so they were at less risk of contracting Covid-19.

“For the first few days last week, we were just discharging people and we actually didn’t have that many patients at all. A few nurses from my ward would have been redeployed to a different ward to help out, wherever they might have been short-staffed or any of the wards that are set for any possible Covid cases.

Last week actually wasn’t too bad. You’re kind of waiting for the storm to hit really. This week, it’s kind of hit and miss. Monday, I had a pretty busy day and I was very late coming out of work, and then yesterday it was nice and calm again. 

“The morale, in fairness, has been pretty good. I have such a great ward, all the staff are so good and everybody is in good form. They’re not really letting it get to them.

grace-walsh Walsh has been working in St Vincent's since her time at UCD. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I know that I’m very lucky to have a job so I’m happy out going to work. I get to meet new people every day and the girls that I work with. So far, it’s not been too bad. Everyone’s in good form, and trying to keep the spirits up anyway.

“Everybody’s just there to help each other. It is our job at the end of the day so we’re just trying to get through it.”

At the moment, there are no Covid-19 cases in Walsh’s ward, but they are fully prepared for whatever comes their way. The hospital, in general, is keeping Covid-positive patients and possible cases away from everyone else, so there’s no integration. 

It is likely, though, that low-risk possible cases will filter into her ward in time, and then as the surge comes, they’ll be called upon more and more.

“I think what they’re going to eventually try do is if the ICU gets full up, if the numbers start rising, then we will take the patients from ICU because we have the high-dependency unit,” the 26-year-old continues.

We’ll be taking the overflow just to give them a little bit of relief. It’s all kind of a waiting game really because we don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know how many more [cases there will be]. But the hospital seems nice and calm at the moment.

Walsh is hugely positive through it all. 

While the morale is high and the mood is good at work, there is understandably some worry among staff. Yesterday’s statistics showed that around one quarter of  the positive cases in the country are healthcare workers.

The Tullaroan defender isn’t worried about herself, though. She is about others.

“Obviously we’re definitely more at high-risk. Maybe some of the older nurses might be a little bit more nervous. If they have kids at home, I know they don’t want to bring it home.

Myself, I know that I’m not scared at all about the virus. What I would be afraid of is that I would bring it home to the four girls that I live with. I won’t be going home to Tullaroan any time soon because there’s not a hope of me risking my parents getting it.

“That’s probably the only worry really: a lot of us are not really worried about ourselves, it’s just we don’t want to pass it on to anybody else.

“The thing is in the hospital, we’re prepared for it. We’re wearing all the protective gear that we need, the proper PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]. If you’re wearing that right, which everybody is obviously going to do, you’re hopefully not going to get the virus.”

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grace-and-tommy-walsh Grace and her brother, Tommy, in 2013. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Walsh lives with college friends in Sandyford, but usually spends a fair chunk of her week back home in Kilkenny. She trains with her Cats side in the evenings of her days off, so she gets up early to head down the road and spend time with her nearest and dearest beforehand.

So this, of course, is a huge change. No family time, no training, nothing.

“I’m a very family-orientated person, my whole family are,” the only sister in the hurling-mad Walsh family smiles.

“Sure I’m usually home at least three days a week so that is a bit hard, but you’d take not seeing them, knowing that they’re not at risk of getting it and you’re not at risk of giving it to them.

If I know that I’ve not brought it home, I’ll feel better. If I was home, and even if it wasn’t me to give it to them, I’d probably still blame myself. I don’t want them, or any of my family, to be sick. It’s just safer to stay up here.

“The reunion will be worth it, when I get home to see them eventually.”

Through the shocking Tullaroan signal, Facetime is keeping everyone connected, even though she laughs that her mother, Frankie, struggles with it from time to time.

“I’m like, ‘Please go near a window or somewhere that has signal, Mammy, because I can’t hear ya,’” Walsh giggles. “She’s picking up everything I say wrong then.

“She’d be a fierce worrier. The other day, she was like, ”Is there anybody in the house with you?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, my four housemates are all up working from home…’ and she’s like, ‘Oh Jesus, so you’re there on your own now for the next few weeks?’ I was like, ‘Mammy. I’m actually hanging up because I can’t do this any more!’”

Last week, Walsh posted a two-minute video on social media about the severe gravity of the situation after being asked to hammer home key messages by the Women’s GPA.

In her opening address, she admits that she, like many, probably didn’t take it as serious as we should have in the beginning. But it’s very real now, with the Republic of Ireland’s most recent figures recording 1,564 cases and nine deaths. 

“It’s to get through about how important it is to listen to what the HSÉ are telling us. They’re the experts. The infectious diseases doctors, they’re the experts in this situation so why not listen to them?”

The video concludes: As a healthcare worker, I know that not one frontline worker expects a thanks. What I do know that we expect is that everybody gets behind each other and does what they can to protect not only themselves, but the vulnerable people out there.

While she has been getting plenty of ‘Thank you’ texts and thoughtful messages, the big thing Walsh wants people to do is respect their work, follow the guidelines and stay at home. Solidarity is key.

That’s it. The thing is, none of us expect a thanks. This is my job and I’m happy to do it. I love what I do, and I’m very happy as is anyone else that’s working in the field. It is their job, they chose to do it.

“It’s just a lot of us are not going home to our parents because we don’t want to risk them getting it. It’s just to try and get people to respect that, not give us thanks but to respect it and listen.

“Do the same thing — stay away from your grandparents or your parents if you don’t live with them already. Don’t be meeting up with your group of friends and socialising and stuff. I do think it has improved, and hopefully people just keep at it now.”

catherine-finnerty-and-grace-walsh Facing Catherine Finnerty in the 2019 All-Ireland final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As the blanket ban on Gaelic games continues, Walsh is thinking about much more than camogie at the minute but she’s tipping away at her own individual training.

While it’s only something small in the grand scheme of things, the Kilkenny star had just returned from injury before the shutdown. So this certainly hasn’t come at the best of times, as she was delighted to be back in the thick of it all.

It’s a matter of taking things day by day with everything up in the air with regards league and championship fixtures, but Walsh isn’t too worried about that. 

This is about much more than sport after all, she concludes.

Do you know what, I think if we had the option of playing a championship and winning an All-Ireland, or our family and friends being healthy, I think we would all choose our family and friends being healthy.

“If we have to take a break from it for another while to keep people safe, then I think everybody would be happy enough to do that.”

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Emma Duffy

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