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Student Matt says Covid-19 taught him what it really means to be a nurse

Matt Townsend

When Swansea University nursing student Matt Townsend was given the opportunity to join the NHS frontline at the height of coronavirus crisis, he knew just what he had to do.

The severity of the pandemic led to an appeal to student nurses like Matt to opt to take up clinical placements that would help strengthen the healthcare workforce.

Matt, who is in the second year of the Adult Nursing course at the College of Human and Health Sciences, said to consider anything other than opting in was not an option for him.

However, it still wasn’t an easy decision – particularly after Covid claimed the life of one of Matt’s lecturers, Brian Mfula, in April.

“For many of us, Brian’s death brought home the gravitas of the situation as well as the fragility of life. Brian’s death devastated me. Not two weeks previously, he had taught us via Zoom.

“I learned a great deal from him, and his death confirmed one thing – coronavirus spared no-one. A few days later, I sat at my desk and wrote goodbye letters. . . just in case.”

Despite the fears of his family and friends, particularly his husband Pete, Matt was one of 700 Swansea nursing students who took up an extended placement in clinical practice.

“At the fundamental core of my being, I want to be a nurse and I want to help where I can. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I am a future nurse. I have a professional responsibility and duty of care to my patients’. “

During the crisis, both before and during his time on the wards at Withybush Hospital in Haverfordwest, Matt kept a journal, documenting his experiences and thoughts.

With encouragement from Head of Nursing Prof Jayne Cutter, Matt has prepared a paper based on his journal which has been published in The British Journal of Nursing.

Matt also kept a vlog, often recorded at the end of a gruelling shift, which gives an insight into what it was like for students who were plunged into full-time role so early in their careers.

“Night after night, I would return home from placement and write. Some evenings I would write for hours in an almost desperate attempt to make sense of what I had witnessed, or what I had learned. In many respects, my journal became my therapist, my confidante, the non-judgemental sounding board of how I was coping.”

He is certain the experience, though often distressing, has been a valuable one for all his fellow students: “This has made us stronger and more skilled practitioners. During the placement I developed personally, professionally and emotionally.”

Besides support from the University, Matt said he benefited by being part of a team, not just on his ward but in the NHS as a whole.

“I did feel we’re all in this together and that sense of solidarity really did help me, it made us feel we really were making a difference.”

He also paid tribute to Hywel Dda University Health Board and to how the hospital made student nurses feel safe and supported.

His vlogs show how the long hours combined with weekly online learning sessions began to take their toll. Recording in his car after one shift, he said: “I am feeling tired and a little bit wobbly so I am going to check in with my academic mentor to see how I could perhaps do things a little bit differently. “

But he said there were some positives: “At least there’s no problem getting parking spaces at the hospital!”

During one post recorded at home, Matt urged colleagues to make the most of any time off.

“Give yourself time to heal – we have a lot going on. For me it is all about enjoying time with Pete enjoying time outdoors and being kind to myself. Times are hard on the ward, we are going through it but never forget the good work you are doing.”

With hospital visiting at a halt, student nurses like Matt acted as vital links between patients and their loved ones.

“It was a learning curve for us all – nurses and patients, in the thick of it together.”

Now the placements are over, Matt says he is glad he had the opportunity to opt in. He said: “Returning to clinical practice as a student nurse was a welcome reprieve from the monotony of lockdown. It allowed me the opportunity to feel useful again. It gave me purpose.

“While I learned a great deal clinically and, without doubt, developed professionally as a nurse, my Covid-19 journey has been an overwhelmingly personal one. This journey has not only impacted and enhanced my clinical and professional development, but it also allowed me the opportunity to grow emotionally.”

But he says he will always be most grateful to the patients and families he cared for.

“Thank you for entrusting me with your care and for teaching me so very much about what it means to be a nurse but also what it means to be myself.”

Prof Cutter said Matt’s reflections had provided a valuable insight into what the nursing profession had to deal with and how it adapted to working through a pandemic

She said: “I am very grateful to Matt for keeping this record. By sharing his experiences, he has been able to offer a real insight into the difficulties faced by student nurses during coronavirus and how they coped.

“We are very proud of the contribution our students were able to make in such extraordinary circumstances for healthcare. It has been a tough time not only for them but also for the qualified colleagues who guided them through clinical practice and their mentors here at the University.

“To know they were able to rise to the challenge gives us all great pleasure and stands them in great stead for their future careers.”