on the frontline
'Everyone is very much involved in this' - The Dublin All-Star doctor on duty in Temple Street Hospital
Noelle Healy shares her experience through the Covid-19 crisis.

NOELLE HEALY HAD just made her seasonal return for the Dublin footballers when the Covid-19 crisis properly came onto the radar on these shores.

noelle-healy-celebrates-after-the-game Oisin Keniry / INPHO Noelle Healy after last year's All-Ireland final. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

The four-time All-Ireland champion hit the ground running at Fraher Field, her first-half goal helping the Sky Blues past Waterford. Four days later, Leo Varadkar addressed the nation from Washington DC and the first of many strict measures were taken.

A blanket ban was imposed across all Gaelic games activities, and Healy’s 2020 inter-county return came to an abrupt halt.

After a lengthy, All-Ireland-winning club season with Cork side Mourneabbey and work placement on Leeside, the 29-year-old had taken an extended break to complete her final anaesthetics exams and adjust to life in Dublin’s Temple Street Children’s Hospital.

Just a few weeks in, here she is, working as an intensive care doctor and anaesthetist right in the thick of a global pandemic.

“It was obviously a bit of a learning curve,” the All-Star and 2017 Footballer of the Year tells The42, looking back on mid-March when all things Covid-19 related started to ramp up in Ireland.

Information was sought out from China and Italy — where the virus was especially rampant at the time — and from anaesthetic organisations and medical colleges, in particular.

“A lot of them were putting on really good, free online lectures and just sharing information to try and get up to grips with what treatments people were doing, what was working, how people were presenting, what were the common pitfalls and problems.

It was a bit of an avalanche of information in terms of that at the start, trying to keep up with everything and information coming from everywhere.

“Even in work as well, there was just an awful lot of education on proper PPE; how to put it on, how to protect yourself. Definitely, at the start, it was kind of overwhelming.”

While she looked overseas, the St Brigid’s forward peered closer to home too. The more information she could gather about it from colleagues and friends, the better.

“I was trying to get in touch with different mates from college and stuff and see how they were getting on and what they were experiencing, hearing how different people were up-skilling, cross-skilling and getting ready for work in ICU if it came to that, with the way Spain and France and Italy had been so overwhelmed,” Healy continues.

That was a little bit scary and that made you stand up and take notice, like, ‘Jesus, this something that we’ve never really experienced and never really thought that we’d have to face.’

“Then, changing the way we worked really; how many people were around in work, to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and weren’t getting too overwhelmed, and people weren’t at risk of getting sick.

“It’s kind of all come into a more regular pattern now. The children’s hospitals, thankfully, have been okay. There haven’t been too many presentations which is great from the kids’ point-of-view. But it’s just been very different.”

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 12.00.42 AIG Ireland. Healy works in Temple Street at the moment. AIG Ireland.

While other medical professionals across the country have been seconded into different roles to deal with the virus directly, Healy’s day job hasn’t changed drastically as intensive care doctors and anaesthetists deal with patients with respiratory issues quite a lot.

“We’d be the people who would be intubating patients, we’d be putting them on ventilators in the ICU so from that point-of-view, roles that are our speciality and that my colleagues and I would have been faced with haven’t really changed,” she explains.

“It’s just the way you do things, and the volume of it is very different. The paediatric population, it’s just about being a bit more careful and taking a bit more precaution. That’s the big way that we’ve changed.”

‘Careful’ and ‘precaution’ are two words she uses quite a lot, stressing the importance of concentration and focus each and every day.

At the start, it was a case of going into the unknown and unexpected each morning but thankfully, things have calmed more now after that early avalanche of change.

“Initially, it was very much into the unknown. There were a few cases where we were blindsided, but people were at the start [of the process]. We were treating patients that were sick with the virus and that kind of put us at risk.

“But now, we’re just being more careful in terms of the way we do things to make sure that we’re protecting ourselves and not falling into that again. We’re trying to test more, as much as we can, in terms of capacity of testing which is good.

We’ve started taking some patients from other hospitals like Tallaght Hospital and Drogheda Hospital. Because they’re so overwhelmed from the adult point-of-view, Temple Street have started to take a few more patients.

“In that way, we’re more busy with your normal, run-of-the-mill things but because we don’t know, you still have to have a high level of suspicion as well. You just have to be more protected. All the operations and stuff that we do, we’re wearing PPE which is heavier and warm, and [taking] breaks and things like that.

“But it’s good, it’s not unmanageable or unsustainable thankfully.”

There have been some scares here and there, she tells, after coming into contact with Covid-positive patients at the beginning. But the precautions, care and measures that are being taken now are to avoid that in so much as possible. 

Things have settled down on all fronts.

That was something people were experiencing a bit at the start, but now we’ve just got to grips that this something that we’re probably going to have to live with for a while,” Healy says.

“We’ve just gotten into a bit more of a rhythm with it in being a bit more careful, which is good. In terms of a time lapse, you don’t really know who you’ve met, where you’ve gone and who you’ve brought it to. That’s the most scary thing about it, which is why, at the time when it first started to come in, social distancing was so important.

“You can see from contact tracing how it’s dropped from an average of 20 people to less than five a few weeks ago, which is brilliant. People have really got on board with it and really helped support the hospitals in not becoming overwhelmed, and in keeping it at bay to a certain extent, so far anyway.”

The mood in Temple Street is good, everyone is in high spirits through these challenging times and there’s a real sense of togetherness among the staff. 

It’s the same in hospitals across the country, Healy says, after conversations with college friends and family members deployed elsewhere. Her sister is a nurse in St James’, one of her cousins is a GP and another is a final year medical student who has been fast-tracked onto the frontline.

noelle-healy-with-zach-ring Oisin Keniry / INPHO On the 2018 TG4 All Ireland ladies football champions' visit to Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s a nice sense of collegiality and information-sharing, we’re all looking out for each other and seeing how things are going on in their hospital.

We had all said if they needed us anywhere else, we’d be ready to help our colleagues and to give a dig out in ICUs if it came to that — which, thankfully, it hasn’t really. It’s unbelievable how well prepared, to a certain extent, things have been.

“They’re very, very busy, but there doesn’t seem to be a sense that we’re overwhelmed in any such way, which is great. I haven’t heard of too many of my colleagues becoming seriously ill with it as well, which is always a massive worry, so that’s great.”

Please God, the only way is up from here.

Fingers crossed, Healy says.

“I mean things are going to have to start loosening at some stage and I suppose we’re just going to have to see how things are from there.

“You get a sense that there may be a bit of a learning curve with it at the start, but people have played ball and followed the advice that the Government and the public health officials have offered — and you’d hope that they will continue that.

“I know it’s difficult and we’re almost two months into it now, people are… not getting fed-up… but it’s only sustainable for a certain amount of time so it’s understandable that people might be starting to get a bit itchy out it, or a temptation to get a bit lapse about it — especially when you’re expecting this big massive avalanche and maybe, in some people’s minds, it wasn’t as bad as they were expecting.

But at the same time, people have still lost their lives and there’s still an awful lot of people sick in hospital that wouldn’t be in hospital at this time of the year, so you do have to respect that it is something that’s quite serious.

There has been a lot of praise and thanks for frontline heroes over the past few weeks — and rightly so — but one thing Healy can’t help but laugh at is the wording of some of these comments.

The responsibility is on people to stay at home, and that’s the best way to protect yourself.

“I think it’s funny in everything people say, they’re like, ‘Thanks so much to the health service who are protecting us from this virus.’

You’ll only come meet us if unfortunately you have it. We’re not going to be the ones that will protect you. We’ll support you and we’ll try and treat you, but it will be the public who are protecting each other.

“I think that is something to stay cognisant of, in that everyone is very much involved in this.”

Coming together by staying apart is a phrase that has been used quite a lot over the past few weeks, and Healy feels that the public’s reaction to this crisis has been great overall. 

Initially, she was on edge that people my not follow restrictions. Particularly when it came to sport and the blanket ban on Gaelic games activity.

“I was worried, you know the way some people can be, they can take training to the extreme a little bit and be like, ‘Ah sure look, we’ll do it on the sly’ or whatever,” the Dublin star nods.

AIG Ireland / YouTube

“You’re always kind of a bit worried that that sense will come in but, in fairness, anybody that I talked to, if people were trying to arrange [collective training] when you could still meet up in groups of three or four, there were a lot of people saying, ‘No look, I have such and such at home,’ or ‘I’m staying with whoever, I’d much rather not take the risk and just train by myself.’

“From that point of view, it was great to hear how responsible people were being. That was really reassuring.”

It can’t be denied, that like every other player across the length and breadth of the country, she’s missing football.

A long, enforced break like this one is like nothing Healy has ever experienced before and she doesn’t know herself with all this free time.

“To some extent, it’s nice,” she smiles. “You don’t realise how much you’re to-ing and fro-ing and how much pressure you have put on yourself to be trying to do everything at once and be everywhere at once, going from work to training and then home again and back up.

When you get home, you have all evening to make your dinner, sit down and relax. You’ve no onus to be everywhere, and that’s nice for maybe a week or two, or one night or other.

“First and foremost, you miss your friends. The two girls, Niamh [McEvoy] and Goldie [Sinéad Goldrick], are obviously back from Australia and I haven’t got to see them yet. I’ve been chatting away to them but it would be nice to see them face-to-face.”

“It’s tough,” she adds. “Where there’s no date in mind, you’re looking at some arbitrary end of August, maybe, September [date], when you hope that a championship will get going. It can be hard to motivate yourself. I’m sure that’s the experience some people are having and definitely, that’s only natural.

“But exercise is important and it’s important to get out of the house. While you may not have the motivation every day to go do your big, tough conditioning session that you’ve been given, even just to get out of the house and kick a football, it’s a nice head clearer.”

She’s keeping herself ticking over with a programme, and guidance and support from her Dublin teammates and management is helping.

While the Ladies Gaelic Football Association [LGFA] took the decision to cancel the leagues early and uncertainty reigns over championship, Healy is happy to take things as they come.

“I suppose I had just came back,” she laughs. “I thought I’d hit the ground running and then it was put to a pretty abrupt stop. It’s good, I suppose, I can play catch-up a little bit on my own.

I think it was probably the responsible decision and in some ways, it was good that they just called it at that rather than leaving it hanging it over. I think only time will tell in terms of what we’ll do for the championship.

“But yeah, it’s disappointing. The league is nice, especially when the weather starts getting a little bit nicer and we were looking forward to playing against Donegal and Westmeath, but look, there’s nothing that can be done for it.

“They’ve an obligation and a responsibility to safety for players, for our families and for supporters, so I think they did what they felt was the right decision, which is only fair.”

noelle-healy Morgan Treacy / INPHO On the ball for Dublin last summer. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m sure there were teams that were disappointed in terms of promotion and things like that, but this is only a hobby,” she adds, noting that everyone is in the one boat. “Health is an awful lot more important.”

She has plenty to keep her busy away from work anyway, to keep her sane — or drive her crazy — with loads of DIY to be done around the house.

“Since coming back from Cork, it’s been nice to get our house into a bit of shape so I was out building and painting out the back there. But yeah, just the usual stuff.

“It’s a good time to train well, and if you’ve had any chronic injuries or little bits that you need to work on, even in terms of skill, it’s nice to get to do that.

Look, it’s nice to sometimes just have a little bit of downtime, a little bit of breathing space. That’s good as well. I’m tipping away, trying to get my 5k down with all these challenges,” she grins as our conversation comes to a close.

No cheating now.

“None, no,” she assures with a giggle. “Hitting 17 minutes. I’m delighted!”

She’s joking, of course, but you honestly wouldn’t be surprised.

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