It’s Friday night when the phone rings. Su Carty is barely in the door, barely had a chance to catch her breath. Or gather her thoughts. She’s just in from a 12-hour shift at St Vincent’s Hospital, and it won’t be long before she’s clocking back in again. She’s spent the whole day on her feet, fighting in the face of Covid-19 and providing the specialist care her patients require, while battling her own physical and emotional fatigue. There’s just enough time to make dinner, catch up with family on a Zoom call and reset for tomorrow. Life on the frontline.
It’s now four weeks since Carty answered Ireland’s Call and returned to work as psychiatric nurse. There was no obligation to, nor a responsibility as a qualified healthcare worker to press pause and report for duty. But, like hundreds around the country, she ignored initial hesitancy to lend her time, expertise and experience to the national cause. Moreover, Carty felt honour-bound at our greatest time of need in the knowledge she could help. In any way she could.
“My first thought was, they won’t need me,” Carty, a member of the IRFU Committee and Ireland’s first female representative on the World Rugby Council, tells IrishRugby.ie. “The need in this situation is different to what I could offer but, deep down, I knew immediately I could do something. I knew there was something I could contribute when it was needed most.”
Returning to the medical profession over a decade after stepping away would present its own challenges in any circumstance, but to do so overnight and in the midst of a global pandemic means there is little or no time to readjust and bed back in. There is no window to upskill and reintegrate, instead a pressing requirement to simply swim in the deep end. There is no chance to get your head around it, or to prepare for what’s to come. Just an urgent need to get on with the task at hand.
“There have been surreal moments, for sure,” Carty admits. “There have been days in the ward when I’m head to toe in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and I’m just thinking, is this real? It almost feels like you’re in a movie or on a set. I suppose it’s a situation I never thought I’d be in. You come up to the ward and there’s a whole area to get gowned up. You’re going in with your gown, your mask, your hair covered and your face shield. You sign in and care for your patient and then leave through another door. There are definitely moments when I just wonder am I really here standing in the middle of this. It doesn’t feel real at times.”
Carty, in the space of four short weeks, has borne witness to the devastating effects of the virus. She has spent 12-hour days working on the Covid-19 positive ward at St Vincent’s, observing first hand the precariousness of the current situation, and in the most devastating circumstances, the fragility of life.
Her qualification as a psychiatric nurse means Carty’s role is a particularly specialised one within the Covid-19 ward, primarily caring for patients who have been admitted to hospital with a medical need but also require psychiatric care. As well as being critical work, it is also extremely challenging and, at times, distressing.
“There’s a particular gentleman who has the virus and who also is quite a complex psychiatric diagnosis,” she explains.
“He needs one-to-one support so I’m looking after him in the ward. I think the biggest challenge for me is when you have patients who don’t fully understand what’s going on or don’t understand the severity of it. It’s really sad to see people dying and we’re all working incredibly hard to reduce the number of deaths, but I get particularly emotional when a patient isn’t fully aware of the situation they’re in. That’s tough.”
The importance of Carty’s experience in this area cannot be understated. Before becoming World Rugby’s first Women’s Development Manager in 2009, she had specialised in child and adolescent mental health and, while working in a number of roles including as a clinical nurse specialist in Limerick, completed a part-time Masters in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy from UCD.
While she was fully committed to that career path, a parallel career in rugby administration was beginning to take shape, eventually leading Carty to leave nursing to spearhead World Rugby’s development of the women’s game for a period of seven years, during which she played a key role in ensuring women went from making up 4% of the world’s rugby-playing population to 25%. Now, her expertise is of immense value on the frontline.
“I actually see a lot of comparisons between the bond and togetherness in the hospital and in rugby,” Carty says. “It’s such a difficult time for everybody but it has been pretty incredible to see how the whole hospital, and indeed the country, has come together to form this shared commitment to tackle the virus. It’s like that experience of being on the pitch together. Everyone has a role but everyone has each other’s backs and even in the circumstances, there’s a real positive morale.”
Carty isn’t the only figure within Irish Rugby at the heart of the effort to tackle Covid-19. On her first day in St Vincent’s, she joined the recently-qualified Dr Claire Keohane for a coffee, while prop and student nurse Linda Djougang is on duty at Tallaght Hospital, with Dr Claire McLaughlin another women’s international working hard in the Accident and Emergency Department at Ulster Hospital in Belfast.
Leadership, communication and team work are all key tenets of success on the pitch, but also in the ward.
Even still, nothing could have prepared Carty for what she is experiencing at present. The very nature of her work is intense, both physically and emotionally draining. A critical day’s work begins at 7.30am and while she is scheduled to take three breaks during a shift, the needs of the patient always comes first. You sit or eat when there’s a minute spare, but rarely both at the same time.
At home, Carty has isolated from her house-mates, meaning any interaction with family and friends remains limited to video calls – but technology has, at least, ensured the referee has been able to maintain contact with her clients, having set up her own consulting and business coaching company after leaving World Rugby. She now balances four shifts a week in St Vincent’s with her day job.
“Little things are making a big difference for me during this period,” she explains.
“I always make sure I have something to look forward to when I go home after working in the hospital, even if it’s something daft. A video on YouTube, a show on the RTE Player. It’s that mindset of, I’m going home and I’m looking forward to that after work. This might sound really basic but before I leave for work in the morning, I always make sure my bed is made. It just means when I get home after a long shift, it’s a clean, tidy bed. You’re in and happy and the day is done.
“I also write a note for myself at the end of each day. Just about something that was great about the day, no matter how small. It all helps leave work at work because it can become all-consuming. You can leave work having been surrounded by it and get home and continue to be surrounded by it. On the radio, on the news. I find a couple of things like that just help me switch off.”
Like many of us, Carty is unsure of what the immediate future holds. She has reconnected with her professional past in unprecedented circumstances, contributing what she can as part of a wider, nationwide effort. And as trying as the last four weeks have been, the experience has also reinvigorated Carty’s desire to make a difference, particularly in the area of psychiatric disorders.
“We have made fantastic progress around mental health in recent years,” she says.
“But we still have a bit to go when someone is diagnosed with a lifelong psychiatric disorder. What I’m clear on, and regardless of what the future holds, is that I’m committed to making a difference in that area. Having worked with patients and reconnected again first hand, it’s something that really matters to me and that connection isn’t going to go anywhere.
“As for working in St Vincent’s, I’ll keep doing it for as long as I’m needed and for as long as it’s making a difference. My intention is to continue to balance this and my business but we’ll see what happens from there. Everyone is hoping we can come out the other side of this as quickly as possible and I see the amazing work that goes on in the hospital, but there is still work to do.”
Carty adds: “I always remember something Brian Cody said in an interview and I think it’s particularly applicable to the current situation.
“He said there were no superstars in his dressing room and then he stopped and said, or they’re all superstars. And that’s the whole country right now. We’re a team of superstars – whether you’re on the frontline, or staying at home and following the guidelines, we’re all doing our part and for that, we’re all superstars. And that’s how we conquer this. Together.”