Nurse Helena sat with dying patients in final moments while she and her elderly parents also caught the virus
Nursing seriously ill Covid patients and battling the virus herself has made the past year one of the toughest ever for our 2019 Spirit of Health winner Helena Phelan.
Before the coronavirus struck last March, she worked as a respiratory nurse, mainly with outpatients at Londonderry’s Altnagelvin hospital.
As the pandemic took hold, like many other NHS heroes, she found herself redeployed to Covid-19 wards, working around the clock.
The 52-year-old picked up our Spirit of Health Award, sponsored this year by Henry Brothers, for her dedication to others, which continued beyond the hospital door.
After discovering the benefits of singing for respiratory patients, Helena set up The Warbling Wheezers, a choir made up of people battling lung conditions.
A lot has happened since she picked up her award at Titanic Belfast. After a tough 12 months on the Covid wards, Helena recently started a new chapter in her career as a nurse manager at Quayside Medical Practice in Derry.
“It has been a very difficult year. Obviously, when Covid hit, the choir could no longer meet as the members are all quite vulnerable,” she said.
“Just two months before the first lockdown, Dr Sean Ryan, the musical director at Ulster University, took over as our musical director. The difference he made to the choir was phenomenal.
“At first, we thought we might try to meet online, but most members didn’t want that, so we kept in touch through messages. We’re not sure when we will get back to it, but everyone really misses it.”
While the choir came to a halt, work became even busier, with Helena finding herself nursing sick and dying patients on Covid wards.
But worse was to come when she caught the virus and passed it onto her mum (80), also called Helena Phelan, and dad Richard (79).
She recalled: “As soon as Covid hit, I was redeployed to the wards. I went from working Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, to working night shifts, weekends and days, usually 12 hours at a time.
“There were a few horrendous shifts with people passing away. When you are caring for Covid patients, you are nursing in very difficult circumstances. You are trying to keep people as comfortable as possible and there are no visitors, so we would have sat with people who were near the end, which gave some comfort to their families.
“I know first-hand how difficult this was as my dad ended up in hospital for two weeks. Even as a nurse in full PPE, I couldn’t go and see him.
“My mum and dad were in my bubble. Mum was in the car with me one day. Later that night, I developed symptoms, got tested and was positive.
“Mum and dad then took ill and dad was very serious. At one point, he was in intensive care and we were told he was not going to make it. Thankfully, he did and is now okay.
“I had terrible guilt because it was traced back to me. Knowing I had passed it on to my mum and dad was just horrendous.”
Seven years after she founded it, Helena is as passionate as ever about her choir, which she hopes will be up and running again with weekly meetings by the end of the summer.
“When you sing, you use major muscles in your diaphragm to breathe deeply. This really helps clear the chest and is of great benefit to people with respiratory conditions,” she said.
“Members (of the choir) have definitely seen an improvement in their health and breathing. In particular, it has helped stave off chest infections, which most people are not getting as often as they would have. It (singing) really should be on prescription.”
Helena was nominated for our award by her admiring partner Sean Faulkner (58) and was stunned to win.
She recalled: “I was absolutely gobsmacked. I know everybody probably says this, but you don’t do these things for recognition and awards.”
As we invite you to nominate people for this year’s award, Ian Henry, corporate responsibility director for Henry Brothers, explained why the company decided to get involved in our drive to recognise people who go the extra mile for others.
“Considering the past year that we have come through, we at Henry Brothers realise more than ever the truly inspirational work of those working within health,” he said.
“Our lives have been hugely disrupted and changed in the face of the Covid pandemic, with many working from home while many essential workers continued to work in new and unknown conditions.
“Many families have been affected, not only by the pandemic but through the effects of increased demands on the health service overall. There are so many with a story to tell of help received or support given at a time of huge pressures.”
Mr Henry stressed that the awards were an opportunity to recognise an individual who had made a major impact on the health service and on patients.
“As our motto at Henry Brothers says, we are altogether stronger and leading by example in supporting the health and wellbeing of our people in their daily lives,” he added.
“This is something that we take very seriously, not only by ensuring that we operate high health and safety standards across our construction projects, but also by supporting the mental and physical health of our employees, providing programmes and initiatives that encourage them to be more active, eat nutritiously and look after their personal wellbeing on a regular basis.
“We at Henry Brothers encourage you to make your nominations and sing the praises of your nominee. We are very excited to be part of this award.”