ICU nurse haunted by images of dying with Covid reveals PTSD struggle

Former nurse Joan Pons Laplana said his life fell apart after he worked through both Covid waves on the NHS frontline (Picture: Joan Pons Laplana/AP)

A former intensive care nurse who worked through both Covid waves has told how he was haunted by the images of those he could not save.

Joan Pons Laplana, a former British nurse of the year, suffered mental and physical burnout as he witnessed death on an almost daily basis.

He faced ‘relentless’ pressure that has led him to quit a 23-year career as a senior nurse for a health education role away from the frontline.

Joan suffered anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings, nightmares and flashbacks before being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in April 2021.

He worked at Sheffield Teaching Hospital during the peaks of the pandemic, when he was redeployed from his office job as a digital senior charge nurse to the frontline as the NHS came under massive pressure.

The father-of-three, from Chesterfield, was among staff who worked in stifling PPE knowing they could also be among the fatalities from the spiralling death toll.

‘It was exhausting,’ Joan said.

‘The intensity, frustration, fear and loneliness that you had on the ward was like nothing I had experienced before.

‘As a nurse I thought I was capable of dealing with anything, but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer volume of death and the working conditions.

‘There was a rollercoaster of emotions and the daily tears of the relatives.

‘As a man, I’m not good at expressing these feelings and I kept it from my wife and my children and I was telling everyone I was okay.

‘But after I was going home I was exhausted, I couldn’t disconnect from work and I was having sleepless nights.’

Joan, 46, had an anxiety attack during the first wave and began attending counselling but his symptoms continued into the second peak.

He said: ‘When the second wave finished and I went back to my job I couldn’t concentrate and I had brain freeze.

‘During the second wave I had also become irritable and I would have mood swings. I couldn’t sleep and I had visions of my patients who had died.

‘I became exhausted, my marriage was in trouble and I couldn’t make any decisions. I knew something had to change before I lost my mind, my wife, my family and my job, as my behaviour was becoming more erratic.

‘Everything fell into place when I was diagnosed with PTSD and I realised working in the hospital was a trigger for my anxieties.’

Nurse haunted by images of Covid dying tells of PTSD battle

Joan Pons Laplana suffered nightmares and flashbacks from his experiences on the frontline of both Covid waves (Picture: Joan Pons Laplana)

Joan’s experiences are far from rare among frontline workers, with almost half of intensive care staff in England reporting symptoms of PTSD over the past year, according to the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation (HWF).

Commonplace issues were severe depression, burnout and anxiety.

Overall, 32% of NHS staff told a survey by the charity that their mental health had been ‘drastically impacted’ by the pandemic.

The HWF, which was set up by NHS workers to help their colleagues and families, has launched an appeal to support those affected as it marks National PTSD Awareness Month.

Joan told ‘Every time you opened the double doors to the unit you knew there was a chance you could lose your own life.

‘Physically you were hot and sweaty in heavy PPE but you couldn’t take your visor off or have a drink, you had to plan your water breaks. You had to be constantly alert all the time, which was very tiring mentally.

‘You were seeing the loneliness of patients as they were dying, knowing that sometimes you would be the last person they would see. Sometimes they deteriorated so quickly they were gone in the blink of an eye.

‘The conversations I had with the families and the children of these families has left a huge scar on my heart.

‘These patients are not numbers, they are people.

‘You take it personally, thinking “could I have done anything else?” I wanted to save all those people from this cruel condition.’

Former nurse Joan Pons Laplana was left asking himself if he could have done more to have save Covid patients (Picture: Joan Pons Laplana)

Former nurse Joan Pons Laplana was left asking himself if he could have done more to have saved his Covid patients (Picture: Joan Pons Laplana)

The UK death toll stands at 128,008 people, with 1,141 of these occurring in Sheffield within 28 days of a positive test, according to official data.

‘You would see the empty spaces where people had died,’ Joan said.

‘It was like a non-stop conveyor belt. One patient was dying and would be replaced with another, while others would improve.

‘It was relentless, day after day after day.

‘I’m not religious but there many occasions when I would pray for my patients, even just for them to get a little bit better.’

Joan, who is originally from Spain, says he had psychological support from his NHS Trust but is happier working for Health Education England helping young adults with learning disabilities gain employability skills.

He has changed direction after a career in which he was named nurse of the year by the British Journal of Nursing in 2018.

Joan Pons Laplana says he was left mentally and physically exhausted after working in an NHS intensive care unit (Picture: Joan Pons Laplana)

Joan Pons Laplana says he was left mentally and physically exhausted after working in an NHS intensive care unit (Picture: Joan Pons Laplana)

‘After twenty-three years of being a nurse, making the decision to leave was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made,’ Joan said.

‘But after the first and second waves I couldn’t go on. My new job has given me back my passion for making a difference to people.’

Joan wants the Government and the NHS to place healthcare workers’ mental health on the same footing as their physical wellbeing.

‘We need to talk about mental health,’ he said.

‘What we have been through through is not normal and we need to take the stigma out, we need to say we are not heroes, we are not angels, we are human beings.

‘Some people are okay, some people are not, but we need a space to express how we feel. Our mental health needs to be as much a priority as our physical health and this has not happened yet.

‘We cannot go back to business as normal, we need the Government to facilitate and provide the resources to check that every one of us has the help we need.’

NHS staff are said to have been left exhausted and with mental health issues after the peaks of the pandemic (Picture: PA, file image)

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We recognise the enormous pressure this pandemic has put on all NHS staff and we are working closely with the NHS to rapidly accelerate the recovery of services so everyone gets the care they need.

‘There are a record numbers of doctors and nurses working in England, with over 5,600 more doctors and over 10,800 more nurses compared to last year. To support their wellbeing we’re investing £37 million towards staff mental health hubs, a helpline and a 24/7 text support service. 

‘We’re backing the NHS with £1 billion to tackle the backlogs that have built up as well as giving hospitals £160 million so they can find innovative ways to carry out even more operations and cut waiting lists.’

*Joan spoke to support an appeal by the HWF for free therapy sessions for traumatised NHS staff. To donate and find out more click here

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