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Patients and visitors at the national spinal injuries unit at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital are finally able to reconnect after visiting rules were relaxed as lockdown restrictions continue to ease.
From 26 April, in line with national guidance, hospitals in Scotland have been gradually lifting restrictions on visiting. But that doesn’t mean letting down the guard against COVID. The team at Philipshill ward at the Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit have worked hard to minimise the risks during the pandemic, as they dealt with a year like no other.
Patients within the unit are recovering from life-changing injuries and visits are about more than just the human connection, they are integral part of the rehabilitation process.
Alan Kinnear, 43, spent lockdown working from home as an IT product manager. He was fit and active and took part in 10k runs. Everything changed last September, when a rogue blood clot went into his spinal column. Over three days, first his right, then his left leg stopped working. “It was brutal,” he says. “They told me the damage had been done. That was it, I had a spinal stroke and was paralysed from the chest down.”
Alan and his family, wife Morag and two young sons, Murray, 3, and Ewan, 5, have not had any physical contact for months. Visits have been virtual or through a window, while speaking on the phone.
Alan explains: “The psychological damage from an injury like mine is as bad as the physical. Obviously, the staff in here are great and they all have positive attitudes and they really helped me to get through the days sometimes. But not having your family, not having that support, can be just devastating.
“You’ve had no physical contact with your loved ones. That is really, really hard to take. You really miss not having it.”
Morag says that she is looking forward to being able to meet in person. “I expect it will be emotional for us,” she says, “but will help to prepare for him coming home in May.
“We have been able to visit Alan at the window which has helped me and the boys to get used to seeing him in a wheelchair and spend time with him, but it’s been really hard to support and comfort him. I can’t wait to see him and plan for him coming home soon.”
Alan and his boys enjoy a 'window visit'
Dr Sylvia Merino, 56, a GP from Edinburgh, has been in hospital for almost five months after a devastating injury sustained while on a climbing wall with her husband. “One of the vertebrae in my neck exploded and it caused severe damage to my spinal cord – it’s been pretty tough” she explains. Because of the national restrictions Sylvia’s husband and son have not been allowed to visit her in person. Originally from Spain, Sylvia’s wider family in Madrid have not been able to get to the UK either.
“I’ve not experienced a period with visitors,” she says. “For any little thing, even small things, I need to call on the nurses. I need help even to get my earphones on and it would be good to have family to help with the small things. If my husband was here, he could brush my hair for me – human contact is vitally important.”
Senior Charge Nurse, Helena Richmond, says that it’s been a tough time for patients and visitors not to be able to have in-person visits. She says: “It’s been a difficult balance and staff have worked so hard to keep our patients as safe as possible.
“Our patients have been incredible too. Many of them are here for 3-6 months or even longer and they have all sustained life changing injuries. Although patients have faced those challenges without having visitors, the multidisciplinary ward team have provided full care and attention during this time supporting both patients and families.”
The staff on the ward have been busy preparing for the return of visitors. However, visitors are advised to check with wards about local arrangements and, while not mandatory, visitors are also encouraged to take up opportunities for asymptomatic COVID testing before attending hospital sites. The use of face coverings, hand sanitation and other PPE, as appropriate, remains in place. Patients will be able to have at least one named visitor to provide support – and that named person can change in certain circumstances.
Helena adds: “It’s great to have the families getting back. When you suffer a spinal injury, the psychological impact can be massive. We work with families too, as the adjustments required can be significant, not only in terms of physical adaptations to homes, but how they can help with care and support for loved ones as we promote as much independence for patients as we can. Having visitors back safely will make such a big difference.”
For Alan and his family, getting to see each other again will prove incredibly special. “What you really miss is just hugs,” Alan concludes.
“With the kids you’re always hugging them and they are always hugging you and for months that just stopped – I really can’t wait for that first cuddle.”
Pictured: Alan with his boys after completing the Great Scottish Run.