By Pat Lok
Disclaimer: this article talks about death and discusses how the deceased are taken care of after sadly not surviving COVID-19. If this is something that you may find triggering, please click away.
This article was approved by The Student’s Union because the work undergone by these three ARU Medical Students is incredible and their stories deserve to be told. Support services, both internal as well as external to our university, can be found at the end of the article.
Death is a natural process and everyone will experience it one day. However not everyone has experience working for the deceased and/or family members of the deceased. A group of ARU medical students have worked closely with the deceased and the dying during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring that they have a dignified death.
A volunteer at a hospital mortuary, an employee at a gravestone memorial service and a carer at a care home share their experience in working with the deceased and the families of the deceased.
Volunteering at the mortuary
An ARU medical student, who would like to stay anonymous, volunteered at a mortuary at a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our medical school put out a call for volunteers to work in a mortuary as the short-staffed mortuary was overwhelmed with work. My role entailed checking the details of the deceased when they arrived into the mortuary and when being collected by funeral homes, sanitising the bodies and storing them appropriately.
It was very busy during the height of the pandemic as there were a lot of patients coming into the mortuary from the hospital and the community. I enjoyed being a useful pair of hands when there were very limited staff in the mortuary during a very busy time.
From working in the mortuary, I learned the importance of checking at least 3 points of identification of the deceased and strategies to ensure that the job did not get too difficult emotionally.
It was interesting to see the work done by the mortuary technicians and the things doctors in the hospital could do to make their job easier (for example, making sure that there are 2 hospital name bands on a patient as often these were missing as well as not wrapping several strips of tape around the deceased patients legs or head as this is unnecessary and disrespectful). I will put these things into practice whilst I am training to be a doctor.
Having work experience in a mortuary is quite rare for a medical student and it has been a really valuable experience volunteering there. I have learned a lot.”
Working at a company that provides a gravestone memorial service
“I help a business that takes orders from cemeteries to design and produce gravestones, predominantly for the BAME community. We would take their information such as name, date of death, islamic day of death according to the lunar calendar, and age of death. We would then also take private requests such as if they want special symbols or the stone to be made in a particular colour or shape.
COVID has completely altered our workload; normally in a year we get roughly 1000 orders from this cemetery, but between the end of Feb to April we received 560 orders, half of the annual order in just a few months. We had to work efficiently so the work was split between my dad and I – I would deal with the administrative side of things and my dad would liaise with the cemetery stone supplier.
You take your health for granted until something happens to you. One case particularly stuck in my mind; we had a client who lost 3 family members in the past year, two during COVID times, and it’s sad to know that something unfortunate happened to the same person 3 times in such a short space of time. It really puts life into perspective.
I have never attended a Muslim funeral though I do visit cemeteries with my dad quite often. I did so even as a child, just checking out the work that we put into making the cemetery stones and to be reassured that the person could rest in peace.
I think that this experience will help me as a medical student and later on as a doctor. I am now used to talking with people who are grieving and this experience also emphasised the importance of being empathetic when there are situations in which you can’t overly help at all.
I would personally say that the government should take responsibility in the way that they dealt with the pandemic. A lot of these people weren’t particularly old – there were a significant number of middle-aged people – and a lot of the deaths could have been prevented. Lockdown happened during the beginning of March but it should have been started sooner.”
Working at a care home
Pat, a medical student and the author of this article, who worked at a care home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spanner into the delivery of our medical education as our medical placements are suspended and the end of year exams are becoming online exams. As a medical student I felt quite helpless in the sense that I wasn’t qualified to help people during this time, and moving back home meant that I couldn’t help out at the hospitals where I had placements.
In the end I found a job where I work as a bank carer at a care home near my house.
It’s quite scary to see the virus taking its effects in real time; every sick elderly resident follows a similar pattern: they first stop eating, they have repeated bouts of diarrhoea and episodes of confusion which is followed by a deteriorating condition and, eventually, death. Shortly after the local outbreak, all carers had to don PPE when carrying out personal care and we had to keep maintaining social distancing whenever we could. However, it’s impossible to do that as a carer. Most residents at the care home have a certain degree of immobility which require carers to assist them to carry out activity of daily living (i.e. washing and eating). The fact that we are wearing PPE when we carry out personal care is a scary experience for the elderly, especially for people living with dementia.
Weekly GP visits to the care home are replaced by a FaceTime call, where the nurse would hold the phone showing different pressure sores, rashes and other medical complaints of residents that need attending.
Reflecting on this experience, I have deep admiration for carers across the country and I believe that they deserve better pay and working conditions. In addition, isolating elderly residents in their rooms to limit the probability of virus transmission, in my opinion, may not be the best method of intervention as prolonged loneliness is also detrimental to one’s health. The pandemic has highlighted the devastating consequences of a chronically neglected social care system; rapid changes need to be made in order to prevent history from repeating itself.
Death should not be a taboo to talk about; if you’re interested in exploring the topics around death, there are groups across the country called Death Cafe where people in the community come together to have tea and hold discussions about death.”
If you have lost someone close to you during the pandemic, NHS Support Services are available to offer some assistance. This link leads to a variety of information regarding what to do in the circumstance of a COVID death as well as a bereavement hotline.
The Wellbeing Team is also available for ARU students if you need someone to talk to during these difficult times. At current they are offering appointments via telephone or Zoom. To arrange an appointment please get in touch with them at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You matter and are deeply loved. Please all take care of yourselves.
Image: Ciéra Cree (Mill Road Cemetery)