Sean Berryman had not worked as a nurse for more than six years, having taken on a management position with NHS Grampian.
However, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the unit operational manager for surgical specialities answered a call to arms and donned his scrubs once more.
Previously, he had been a senior charge nurse in intensive care for 17 years – and was also a specialist in ECMO, a life-saving piece of equipment for people unable to breathe on their own and for which Aberdeen Royal Infirmary is the only facility in Scotland.
That meant Sean, 49, was a prime candidate when NHS Grampian called on anyone who had worked as a nurse to volunteer their services.
He temporarily stepped away from his normal job to carry out two three-month stints in intensive care.
“When Covid came around the organisation put out emails saying anyone with the right skills might be asked to go back to critical care in particular,” Sean said.
“I made sure I did all my manual training like moving and handling and life support, then more specific stuff like putting patients to sleep and ventilation.
“I looked at the numbers and having been in ICU already, I felt I could be of use to the team so I contacted them directly myself. I wasn’t put under any pressure but I did feel well-supported by the people in my team, so I was able to go and do my role.
“It was Covid patients I was looking after, mainly the ones in the ECMO unit because I was an ECMO specialist. In the first wave, there were a lot of people from all over the hospital helping out. Not many of them were trained in critical care but they were there to help.
“From my perspective, I’m quite a positive person and I really enjoyed going back. I knew I was going into Covid pods and I knew it would be 12-hour shifts of really hard work, but you feel well-protected and you’ve got to crack on.
“I was only supporting the guys who were already working there because that is their full-time job. I went down for three months from around April last year, and the same over the Christmas period. I’ve just finished up two weeks.”
Sean admitted the decision to return to the wards was not taken lightly – if only because of changes that had taken place since he moved on from the time when he had worked as a nurse.
But he praised the support he and others who stepped up were given.
“It was quite a tough decision to go back in because although I’d worked there for many years, I’d left and been out of there for six years,” he said. “However, I was well-supported, and I did a bit of shadowing to begin with.
“It was really daunting at the start because there was new paperwork – instead of using a pen and paper you use an electronic system. The machinery has changed, and even the phone being hands-free was really different.
“I didn’t know how I’d react to that myself but I didn’t mind asking questions. Last time I was there I was senior charge nurse and everything went through me, whereas this time around I was a helper.
“I didn’t mind that though, and I was under no illusion that I was there to help. The first few shifts were daunting because I was going in not knowing many people, but I soon got over it.”
“I wouldn’t say I felt scared but you are apprehensive because you know that if you take it home to your family, you might well infect them,” Sean added.
“However, I knew that with properly-fitted masks and things like that, we were fully protected.
“I was okay with it but what I did after every shift was have a shower and made sure everything I wore went straight in the hospital laundry. It’s a strange sensation when you finish a shift, have a shower and then jump on your bike to cycle home!”
Sean said he felt “honoured” to return to the front line to work as a nurse, and highlighted a poignant moment during the first wave when the enormity of the situation hit home.
“It was great to go back because you feel like you are giving something back,” he said.
“It felt a bit of an honour for me. Not everyone chooses to, and it was hard, but so many people support what you do.
“People are appreciative – I remember once cycling home to Westhill along the Lang Stracht on a Thursday after a really long shift, and the lorries were going the opposite way. There must have been about 40 of them flashing their lights and beeping their horns to tie in with the clapping.
“It was an amazing feeling to think I’d been on the front line that day and done my bit.”
Read more from our Covid One Year On series here: