There are more than 11,000 staff at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNM) but seven of those are largely hidden away from the general public but are a vital part of the hospital and have provided an intrinsic role in the Trust’s response to Covid-19. In a typical year the Mortuary team at UHNM see about 3,500 patients and around 30 forensic cases from across Staffordshire supporting Staffordshire Police Force. During the last 12 months the teams has been faced with high level of deaths due to Covid.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic the team of four Anatomical Pathology Technologists (APT), one trainee and two support staff were well prepared for any eventualities but like all services across the NHS and UHNM working through a pandemic can take its toll.
Mike Elton is the Mortuary Manager at UHNM and today said: “We initially, like many others at the start of the pandemic worked on adrenaline, working longer days to ensure our capacity wasn’t breached. It was a very new experience which tested us all, physically and emotionally.”
APTs pride themselves on delivering a high standard of personalised and individual care to all of their patients and whilst the deceased may not be viewed as a patient in a traditional sense, that person is a patient for those who work in the mortuary.
He added: “Now we are one year on, we are tired and drained just like many of our colleagues. During my career I’ve dealt with friends and staff that have unfortunately passed away and it sounds harsh but we just switch off, and deal with what needs doing, this is our job. If it’s someone we know, there are set guidelines from our association, which are similar to treating your own relatives as a patient if you were a doctor or nurse. If the case is difficult for any reason we de-brief after to check things are ok but since covid hit we made sure to debrief regularly, checking in on each other at work or at the weekends, we even had a Zoom quiz and a few glasses of wine to stay connected during the lockdowns to keep our spirits up and help us get through the pandemic together.”
From admitting patients, checking on their condition throughout their stay and discharge to the funeral directors, the team also offer a post mortem service to the local Coroners of north and south Staffordshire. These are patients where a diagnosis hasn’t been achieved or the medical teams are not sure why the patient had died but thanks to advances in technology some of these can now be done using a computerized tomography (CT) scan or digital autopsy so it is less invasive.
Mike said: “APT’s assist pathologists in the post mortem procedure, this includes evisceration or the removal of internal organs, collecting samples for diagnostics, recording data, through to the reconstruction of the patient so that there’s very limited evidence the patient has undergone an invasive procedure.
“We also see and support the families of our deceased patients, offering a visiting service where families come and spend time with their relative in our private suite and collect keep sakes from the patient for family members. This can be hair, hand prints or full hand casts with the assistance from the prosthetics team.”
It is this part of the service, which has again been difficult during Covid-19 with visiting restricted to both UHNM’s hospitals – even in the mortuary.
Mike said: “Meeting families keeps us focused on why we have high standards of care towards our patients. We all want to provide the best care and this is demonstrated when we do meet families. It’s probably the most emotional part of the job and having to turn away families due to Covid-19 at the beginning was hard, that hurt, especially as a couple of our own team experienced their own loss during this time. It keeps the job real, there are families and friends connected to every one of our patients.”
Away from Covid-19 and supporting the police with their investigations some of the mortuary team are also involved in the UK Disaster Victim Identification programme (UKDVI), which means they can be deployed nationally and internationally where British national are victims of disaster and need identifying, most recently this included the Thailand tsunami and London Bombings.
“Without a doubt the job is emotional and unique and maybe not suitable for everyone but if there is one thing the last year has highlighted it is that we care for each and every one of our patients in the same way as our colleagues on the ward,” Mike said.