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#Covid19ResearchVoices: Removing the cloak of invisibility

Covid-19 Research Voices: Heather Willis

Published: 16 July 2020

Heather Willis, a Research Nurse at Good Hope Hospital, has been working on the frontline, delivering urgent public health research during the pandemic. Her experience has reinforced her views that research makes a real difference to patients' lives and is best delivered as part of a team. Part of the COVID-19 Research Voices series.

COVID-19 has created a workforce that has pulled together. Working in research you are used to being that extra person a patient needs to see or that extra person the clinical team needs to accommodate. But what the arrival of COVID-19 did was to create a ‘COVID-19 workforce’. Suddenly it didn't matter what team, what job role, what band you were. What mattered was that you were helping people to survive COVID-19.

A great example of this is when we recruited our first patient into the RECOVERY-Respiratory Support (RECOVERY-RS) study.

On 13 April 2020 we were sent the protocol for the trial. Just 12 days later, we recruited our first patient. Pre COVID-19 this would have been impossible to do so quickly.

RECOVERY-RS is an interventional research study that is assessing three methods of ventilation support: oxygen therapy; high flow nasal oxygen; and Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). The primary outcome measurement is the effect of intubation* and mortality rates.

We were due to open to recruitment on a Monday but two days before, a patient came in extremely unwell with COVID-19. One of our trial investigators, who is an acute medicine unit consultant, phoned me to ask if we could screen the patient to see if they were suitable to take part in RECOVERY-RS. After checking with our main Principal Investigator and checking the approvals were in place, we decided to screen the patient.

I will never forget entering the ward to see the patient that day, there was such an air of tension mixed with worry and hope. It felt as though everything was hinging on this study.

As a Research Nurse you normally go about your job almost under a cloak of invisibility, but on this Saturday it was not to be. I don’t generally get nervous at work anymore and I would say working during this COVID-19 pandemic has boosted my confidence, but I was nervous that day.

We screened the patient, got consent from the patient to take part, checked their eligibility, re-checked eligibility and then it was time to randomise - this would determine which treatment option we would give.

I had to go to another room to do it. Although it is an automated randomised telephone system I have to admit I had my fingers and toes crossed.

Just over a month later, the patient went home. He was clapped along the corridor as he left; thanks to the hard work of the hospital team.

We are currently awaiting preliminary results from the RECOVERY-RS team to see if any of the interventions provide better outcomes for our patients.

The research delivered by NHS teams during COVID-19 shows that it doesn’t matter whether the research question is related to a global pandemic, a new cancer treatment or wound dressing. Whatever the topic, research is important, research is a team effort, research answers clinical questions with scientific proof and most importantly research makes a difference.

Heather Willis is a Research Nurse at Good Hope Hospital (Part of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust)

*Intubation is a procedure that's used when a patient can't breathe on their own. A tube is put down the patient’s throat and into the windpipe to make it easier to get air into and out of the lungs. A machine called a ventilator pumps in air with extra oxygen. Then it helps the patient breathe out air that’s full of carbon dioxide (CO2). This is called mechanical ventilation. It helps keep oxygen and CO2 at healthy levels.

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