Book Review: Behind the Mask

Book - Behind the Mask

Behind the Mask: The NHS Family and the Fight with COVID-19 documents the impact of Coronavirus on the staff and patients of one small hospital in South Wales. It is a simple, short collection of photographs and quotes, yet it reveals the incredible determination and hard work of those staff who have been, and still are, working on the front line, donning PPE every day in this hot weather, and persevering in the face of physical and emotional exhaustion.

The book begins by describing those first few days of preparation and anticipation…

‘It felt like the videos you see of what happens just before a tsunami hits; when the tide goes out, the sea disappears and everything goes eerily quiet…’

And then it describes the onslaught, explaining in simple language what happens when a patient is so sick that they need to be put on a ventilator for several weeks, the emotional strain of supporting dying patients when visits were no longer allowed, or having to explain the situation to distressed relatives: ‘a heartbreakingly tough discussion to have over the phone with someone you’ve never met’.

The writers make it clear that ITU is just one crucial stage in the path to recovery, something that doesn’t often make the news headlines:

‘They have survived intensive care but their fight continues; they still need to recover the strength to walk, the coordination to eat, to learn what of their memories are true or imaginary, to learn what has happened in the world and to their families during the time they were unconscious.’

The photographs make it real, and the book is full of quotes from staff working in all sorts of different roles:

‘I was very apprehensive about moving to ITU and with good reason after finishing my first shift. It was like walking into the unknown. Patients on ventilators I’d never used before, drugs I’d never given and patients that could become seriously unwell, very quickly at any moment. It was physically challenging, so hot wearing PPE for hours on end with masks cutting into your face but we knew we had to do it…’

(Steven Jones, Operating Department Practitioner)Covid19 Photograph2

‘A feeling of responsibility I have never faced before. Holding a patient’s hand and willing them to live for the sake of their poor family who can’t be with them will live with me forever.’

(Louise, ITU Nurse)

This book is an important and extremely moving record of what one small hospital has gone through in just a few short weeks, but it is clear that this is only the beginning of the story. The writers acknowledge the fact that much progress has been made, but they also emphasise the need for caution, as lockdown begins to ease, and people’s focus begins to change:

‘At a time when increasing privatisation of parts of the NHS, the removal of nursing bursaries, disputes over junior doctor contracts… COVID has forced the NHS into front and centre of everyone’s hearts and minds once again and reminded them what is actually important to them…

I hope that we don’t forget the lessons that COVID has taught us, even if she has been the cruellest of teachers.’

Behind the Mask: The NHS Family and the Fight with COVID-19 is published by Graffeg. All royalties go to NHS charities. The book was written by Dr Ami Jones, with contributions from Michael Sheen, Jamie Roberts, Aneira Thomas and the staff of Nevill Hall Hospital, and the photographs were taken by Glenn Dene.

Covid19 photograph

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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