How many minutes of Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19 (11 May, 9pm) did I watch before I began to cry? I’m not sure. Was it five, or ten? A man called Peter was the first (though not the last) to set me off: an 88-year-old father and grandfather, a husband of 60 years, a chemist turned inventor of liqueurs, whose family had come to Britain from Germany in the 1930s. I liked him so much: his straightforward, unsentimental manner; the gap between his front teeth; his thick, tousled hair, which stood up in humorous spikes about his head.
Peter was in the Royal Free Hospital in north London, struggling to breathe. He believed he’d caught Covid-19 at a dinner party, and you knew by the way that he spoke of this – even from behind his oxygen mask, he sounded wry – that he loved his life, and didn’t want much to leave it. But he’d also had the big conversation with his GP, and if things were going to get worse, he did not want to be resuscitated. As he waited, then, for his immune system either to fight off the virus, or to be overwhelmed by it, he showed no sign of fear. “One chews through one’s life,” he said, quietly. “So many good things. We’ve had a good run.” Oh, Peter – and Nancy, and Stanley, and Hussein. All of you. What a privilege to have been at your bedsides. For those of us who’ve been lucky, the pandemic has sometimes seemed rather distant, even a little abstract; it has gone on elsewhere. You, though, made it suddenly and intensely real.
If I sound mushy, I hardly care. These extraordinary films, executive produced by Lorraine Charker-Phillips, Simon Dickson and Jackie Waldock, should win all the prizes, and everyone in Britain should have to watch them, by law. The cameras were inside the Royal Free and Barnet hospitals from day one of lockdown – a remarkable thing in itself – and the result wasn’t only movingly human. I learned more about both the strain on the NHS and its staff, and about the virus itself, than I’ve done from any amount of reading or TV news. We have heard, for instance, a lot about the government’s failure to make sure hospitals have enough personal protective equipment. At the Royal Free, however, there were other, almost equally alarming shortages: of oxygen, and body bags. More than once, we listened as doctors rang patients’ families to give them the worst kind of news. Here was kindness and empathy. But here, too, was dread and a terrible sadness: heads in hands, hands across eyes, faces turned from the camera. Professor Alan Salama, having spoken to a wife he feared would soon be a widow, seemed almost to stagger as he walked away down a corridor; his day’s work had literally left him reeling.
How little doctors know about this new illness. “I’ve never done this before,” said Martin Birchall, a professor of laryngology, as he prepared to operate on Nancy, whose breathing tube had become stuck in her larynx. Nancy, he informed us, was the first patient in Britain to suffer Covid-related laryngitis, a condition involving ulcers (patients on ventilators are now being given narrower tubes). Sanjay Bhagani, a consultant in infectious diseases, was trialling remdesivir, a drug previously used on Ebola patients. He, like every doctor and nurse, spoke of how powerfully dispiriting it is to have to try to treat a condition for which, at present, there are no effective medicines – and how relatively unusual.
What has stayed with me, though, is the terrifying disjunction between a Covid patient’s outward appearance, and what may be going on inside his or her body. People often look, and feel, as though they’re improving. They ring their families and talk of going home. But their doctors, armed with X-rays and bitter experience, know better. The virus is like some unseen hand. It reaches out and it strangles; its deadly work is swift and, to the layman, too seemingly sudden to be fully expected. Perhaps this accounts for the unexpected disbelief I felt as the titles rolled. I could process just about everything except for the utterly preposterous fact – the words on my screen hit me like an insult – that, in the end, not everyone made it.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion