Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, writes that the last year has shown us that we are united in our need for the remarkable work of our NHS.  

As I lay on my hospital bed with a mask strapped to my face pumping oxygen through my body, I was overwhelmed by my powerlessness. As I glanced round the ward and caught the eyes of others whose lives were being supported by life-giving equipment, I felt a deep sense of connection - one that’s partly defined the last year: our frailty is shared, our health isn’t guaranteed, and our NHS and the way it supports us in our time of need is remarkable.  

The shock of being hospitalised with Hypoxia was due to my good physical health. My love for cycling started in my childhood and remains today in my 59th year. My 50-mile round trip to work on the Devon coast has nearly always been done by bike. I’ve completed some of the toughest bike rides in Europe, defeating some of the most treacherous climbs in the French Alps in the process. Yet here I was, in the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, feeling defeated by Hypoxia.

Hypoxia is a dangerous condition and happens when your body doesn’t get enough oxygen. Without oxygen, your brain, liver and other organs can be damaged soon after symptoms start. I didn’t think I was that unwell, although I was short of breath when resting. The oxygen monitor my GP wife slipped onto my finger told us I needed to see my doctor. He diverted me to hospital, and after a negative Covid test, I was admitted to their respiratory ward; and there I stayed for the next three days.

Doctors, porters, patients – have all been united in adapting to Covid-19

I had no contact with my family for the first few hours. I didn’t want to be in hospital, but the consultant told me I needed to be put on oxygen for 24 hours. Cut off from the outside world, I watched what was unfolding around me – a team of nurses attentively and caringly attending to their patients; doctors assessing patients and putting them at ease as they delivered their prognosis; and domestic staff joyfully distributing meals, hot drinks, and snacks. With no visitors allowed due to Covid, it was the chats with the domestic staff that saw me through some of the more difficult hours.

Ordinarily, it’s me talking to and supporting patients. My work as a forensic psychiatrist means I treat and rehabilitate people with some of the most serious mental illnesses who find themselves in conflict with the criminal justice system. Some are here after becoming mentally unwell in prison, while others come to hospital for treatment in place of a prison sentence. Working in this environment can be challenging, but nothing compares to the last 12 months. The challenge and pressures of Covid on our NHS has affected mental health services as well as our hospitals.

I’ve been amazed at the flexibility, adaptability and resourcefulness of the team working with me. They overcame the challenges of working with patients while dressed head to toe in PPE. They supported one another in times of great adversity, and there is now an even greater sense of team, almost as if this shared problem has brought them closer together.

I’ve been equally amazed by the response of the patients. Their routines were turned on their heads, the human touch lost because of PPE, and changes made to visits, yet they responded so well and adapted to life in a psychiatric ward during Covid.

And perhaps amazement should be what defines the last year. Amazement at our NHS and its staff from doctors to porters. Amazement at their ability to deliver incredible care despite the pressures of Covid. And amazement that when Covid is gone, our NHS will still be here for everyone.