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Coronavirus: Meet Northern Ireland's key workers sacrificing their home lives for us


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Testing times: Ruth McGreevy in the Ulster Hospital

Testing times: Ruth McGreevy in the Ulster Hospital

The Airbnb Ruth’s staying in

The Airbnb Ruth’s staying in

Close family: Ruth (far right) with her mum and sisters

Close family: Ruth (far right) with her mum and sisters

Forced separation: Maria McNamee and partner Gareth

Forced separation: Maria McNamee and partner Gareth

Better times: Rab McCoy with wife Tanya and their children Robbie and Rachel

Better times: Rab McCoy with wife Tanya and their children Robbie and Rachel

Testing times: Ruth McGreevy in the Ulster Hospital

In times of crisis all we want is to be with our family, but for those with vital roles during the coronavirus pandemic, this poses a great risk. Linda Stewart speaks to three frontline staff who are staying away from their dwellings to protect their loved ones.

The A&E nurse

A&E nurse Ruth McGreevy (27), from Newtownards, has moved into an Airbnb accommodation in Bangor in order to protect her mum and siblings who fall under the high risk category. Her boyfriend is Philip (31), a computer technician

A&E nurse Ruth McGreevy has had fond memories of the Ulster Hospital since childhood when she was a frequent visitor due to her asthma.

Now on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus, the 27-year-old from Newtownards is poised for the toughest battle of her life as the hospital prepares for a flood of patients hit by coronavirus.

Although patients infected with Covid-19 have already started to appear at the Ulster Hospital - and there have been some deaths - there is still a sense that it is the calm before the storm.

"We shut down a bit of the A&E to cater for people coming in, where we could call people in and treat them, send them to the ward or send them home. And then the past couple of weeks we've been closing off more and more of the A&E," Ruth says.

We're all very nervous. I don't even think it's about the people coming in - people are worried about taking it home Ruth McGreevy, nurse

"Obviously, the doctors and the managers are concerned that it's coming because they're shutting it down and we're getting more in-depth training on how to deal with the really sick patients that come in. So it's a bit scarier now that all this is taking place - everyone's on tenterhooks just waiting for this to hit.

"All the wards have been emptied out to deal with this when it arrives and it's quite bizarre lately going to the ward and seeing lots of empty beds, because that hasn't happened in years."

The staff have been getting special training in the personal protection they will wear, including masks, aprons and gloves.

"And then there are things like infection control, how to stop the spread. We're learning how to work ventilators and respiratory equipment," Ruth says.

"That's quite daunting - nurses generally wouldn't really be doing much of that, but now we're being taught it just in case we get into the circumstances where we might have to use them.

"We're all very nervous. I don't even think it's about the people coming in - people are worried about taking it home.

"We all have families at home and sick people and children and things. You're so scared of walking it back into your house, because you never know what will happen. You hear of people getting younger and younger with no medical history who are dying from this, so it's scary."

Ruth has a long association with the Ulster Hospital - she was born prematurely and had bad asthma when she was young, and spent a lot of time in the hospital.

"I just had lots of admissions with my chest as I had quite a lot of asthma attacks, so I was just in and out with that into Maynard Ward. They were always so nice and kind and my sister Eleanor was quite unwell as a child, so we spent a lot of time visiting her when I was little - I was just always around hospitals."

It was this early experience that spurred her to become a nurse.

"I was struck with just how much a bit of kindness can do for someone," Ruth says.

"You can be so unwell and someone just giving you a nice smile or being kind - the smallest gesture can go a long way. Making someone a cup of tea sometimes goes a lot further than any other medication you can give them."

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Close family: Ruth (far right) with her mum and sisters

Close family: Ruth (far right) with her mum and sisters

Close family: Ruth (far right) with her mum and sisters

After leaving school, Ruth went to Queen's University Belfast and worked as a healthcare assistant while studying to be a nurse. She is now an adult-trained A&E nurse in the Ulster Hospital.

"Basically, it's people walking in unwell, so it's like doing bloods and ECGs, trying to figure out what's wrong with people. Lately, I've been dealing with cardiac arrests and things like that, dealing with car accidents."

Ruth lives with her mum Belle (67) and sisters Sarah (33), Eleanor (32) and Kirsty (29).

In the past week she has been forced to make the difficult decision to move away from her family in order to protect them from the danger of infection.

"I'm the youngest, and I didn't want to do it but my mum is 67, and she's diabetic and has high blood pressure," Ruth says.

"My oldest brother Alex recently had four strokes and he was on chemotherapy treatment with quite an unusual disease that he has - nobody's really heard of it. So he's on chemotherapy and he would have quite a low immune system. My sister Eleanor has MS and my sister Kirsty is on immunosuppressant drugs for a stomach problem. I feel like a walking super-virus going into my house.

"I was thinking about it for a few weeks but I hadn't really talked to my mum about it - I didn't want to bring it up until I thought it was really necessary.

"But in the last week especially I noticed that a lot of the patients I've been looking after had been going off to the ward and were taken very unwell or there were people passing away. So, in my eyes I could see it escalating quite a lot and I felt like it was time to go." Ruth says her family was very upset that she had to move out. She was the youngest and had never been away from home for a long period of time.

"I'm only moving to Bangor - it's not far but it's more that I can't come into the house and have a proper conversation with them," she says.

"My mum was very upset about it - she's just worried. She keeps saying she might not see me again."

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Ruth with boyfriend Philip Ferguson

Ruth with boyfriend Philip Ferguson

Ruth with boyfriend Philip Ferguson

Ruth keeps in touch with her family and her boyfriend Philip (31), a computer technician, using video chat.

"I haven't seen him in a month," she says.

Along with another nursing colleague, Ruth has moved into an Airbnb accommodation at Gray's Hill in Bangor thanks to the generosity of the couple who own it.

"They've given us the use of their house completely rent-free which is amazing - it's so kind," she says.

"The kindness we've been shown at the moment is immense - like every day there's more things being sent off to us. We'll keep laughing, saying we'll be rolling out of here after coronavirus because people are feeding us so much.

"We're getting pizzas and doughnuts, and a big coffee van was up the other day giving everyone free coffee and sandwiches and everything. People are donating hand creams because we've washed our hands until they're cracking and bleeding - people are giving us everything."

The toughest thing just at the moment is all the new training, Ruth says.

"They're saying things are going to get a lot harder for us because obviously this disease is airborne, so it's when we go into the big proper masks that it will be scary.

"You're just aware that you can't take them off," she says.

"It's just the fear in people's eyes because they're not allowed any visitors. So it's trying to comfort those people - they're so unwell and scared, and they can't have anyone in their family with them.

"All you can do is just try and be as kind and caring as you can, staying with them, explaining why it's happening, why their family can't come in, we'll look after them the best we can. It's just being there to hold their hands when they need it."

Ruth pays tribute to all the staff who are doing their bit to combat the disease.

"It takes an army in here," she says.

"To move a single patient to the ward, the whole corridor has to close because obviously people can't walk into the corridor when you're moving - so the amount of porters it takes and then the whole area has to be cleaned after one patient moves. The amount of people it takes to move one person is crazy. And you couldn't do it without everybody - the teamwork going on at the minute is amazing.

"I know the Down A&E has closed, so the staff from the Down A&E have just come up today to the Ulster. So that's extra doctors and extra nurses coming up, which is great."

Ruth says the whole thing is very scary but the key thing is to try to keep positive.

"It's all going to be over soon hopefully and if we all just do as we're told it will be over sooner rather than later, hopefully, and we'll come out the other side," she says.

"It really does prove how great everybody is that works for the NHS, not just nurses. We're being supported at the minute, but it really isn't just us - it's everybody. It's amazing seeing everyone pulling together."

The social worker

Social worker Maria McNamee (41), from Londonderry, has moved in with a friend in Castlefin, Donegal, because she is concerned about putting her partner Gareth at risk

I live with my partner of 11 or 12 years - it's just me and him," she says.

"He has two of the conditions that put him at a really high risk - he has type one diabetes and is on immunosuppressants for Crohn's disease. Each one of those would have put him in the at-risk category but the two together complicate things a bit more."

Over the weekend the couple discussed the risk and made the difficult decision that Maria should move out.

"Because I'm still working and I'm out and about in contact with people, we decided the risk was too high," she says.

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Forced separation: Maria McNamee and partner Gareth

Forced separation: Maria McNamee and partner Gareth

Forced separation: Maria McNamee and partner Gareth

"Even before I moved out we were practising a bit of social distancing at home - we had moved into separate rooms and we stayed in separate parts of the house.

"I really thought we could just continue to do that - we didn't go out with friends, we didn't have people calling.

"We genuinely thought this would have been OK but the more we learned about the virus and how it is transmitted, it was like a bang at the weekend.

The difficult thing is not knowing how long it's going to be for - if someone said it would be for 'X' amounts of weeks it would be easier, but it's not knowing when I'm going back to my own environment Maria McNamee, social worker

"It was a really tough thing to do and we just felt it had to be done.

"We made the decision over the weekend and I packed my bags and left for work on Monday morning, not to return really. The difficult thing is not knowing how long it's going to be for - if someone said it would be for 'X' amounts of weeks it would be easier, but it's not knowing when I'm going back to my own environment.

"It's a bit hard for us doing it - I can't even imagine what it's like if you have children."

Maria has moved in with a friend in Castlefin and works from home quite a lot, but there are still days when she has to go to the office or carry out home visits.

"Even though the rest of my family are living locally I'm still not seeing them either," she says.

As a social worker with the looked-after children service, much of Maria's work involves visits to children, families and foster parents.

"We've stepped some of that down but we're doing a lot of phone support and there are still children that we need to visit," she says.

"It's a tough job, so when you don't have your own home comforts around you and your own routine of what you do, it's really tough.

"This is the start of it - it's been okay and it's a lovely place, but I can only imagine when you're two, three, four weeks down the line, and that's only the start of it.

"I think there's a real sense of people getting on with it and you are having to dig deep - I think everybody is doing it. I am so lucky with what I have here - for others out there, it must be so hard for them."

The paramedic

Paramedic Rab McCoy (51), from Coleraine, has moved into a B&B to protect vulnerable family members from infection. He is married to Tanya and has two children, Robbie (16) and Rachel (16)

It was really from a personal point of view - there were a couple of things," he says.

"It was a matter of timing for me, trying to gauge the timing for this curve that is talked about in the news.

"I realised early on that I couldn't work from home.

"My wife had had a couple of bouts of cancer and had undergone radiotherapy and chemotherapy and had her spleen removed, so it was a decision we talked about. It was a no-brainer."

The paramedic was granted a period of emergency leave by the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service in order for him to prepare his family for his absence - including his elderly mother-in-law and his brother, who lives in semi-sheltered accommodation.

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Better times: Rab McCoy with wife Tanya and their children Robbie and Rachel

Better times: Rab McCoy with wife Tanya and their children Robbie and Rachel

Better times: Rab McCoy with wife Tanya and their children Robbie and Rachel

"I cleared all that up and that allowed me the time to prepare for stepping out of the home setting for an extended period of time. I moved out a couple of days ago," he says. Rab admits it will be tough to be away from his family at such a difficult time.

"I was quite emotional. My wife is a fantastic woman, a very brave lady and quite stoic, and the kids have been quite good too, but it has upset the whole lot of us and there were a few tears," he says.

"My plan is to come up round the house, wave through the window and do a few wee things - I've a neighbour to look out for as well - but no physical contact. I'll not be coming within the two-metre range - it's too big a risk. No washing or anything like that.

"It's complete detachment, other than waving from quite a distance away. I'm blown away by the courage of our staff, it's unbelievable. We've had numerous calls today and our guys are being sensible but very brave - all ranks as well.

"The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service have been very helpful through the whole thing, too," he adds.

Belfast Telegraph