Showcasing Science

Showcasing Science: Behind COVID-19 testing

Cherie Beckett, Biomedical Scientist Microbiology, Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust.

As a Biomedical Scientist in a diagnostic microbiology laboratory, my job is largely to assist in the analysis, diagnosis, and management of infection, for the most part caused by viruses and bacteria.  I spend a lot of my working-time in our serology laboratory when I can, and feel this section provides the greatest capacity for knowledge.  I love the infinite combinations of clinical scenarios and diagnostic result, alongside a vast repertoire of viral tests with each one giving a valuable learning opportunity.  It is this section, alongside our molecular section that have largely handled our COVID-19 samples and where I have spent most of my time this year to date.  If I had been told I would spend most of the first half of this year working with just one virus (and not deliberately), however, I would not have believed it!

In the very early-days, our Trust formed an Incident Management Team and it has been both a privilege and a pleasure to work alongside these esteemed colleagues as a laboratory representative.  This vast multi-disciplinary team was formed of key representatives from across the Trust, including -and by no means an exhaustive list- executives, nursing, infection control, surgery, facilities, procurement, microbiology, emergency planning, quality, performance, and operations.

It has been inspiring to work alongside these team members, who each serve as a strong role model for an ambitious individual such as myself, as well as reassuring to truly support the decisions that have been made and understand why and how such steps are taken to keep our patients and staff safe, and the hospital running.  I have learnt so much in terms of knowledge-base, but I also feel I have grown as an individual.  COVID-19 has brought about many unique opportunities, as well as challenges, and has been a fantastic learning opportunity for me from all angles, including, infection prevention and control, business continuity, virus transmission, patient pathways, disease presentation and progression, diagnostic testing and much more.

So here I am in July / August reflecting back and there are definitely gaps in the timeline which appear simply as a blur.  I wish I’d have kept a journal of my thoughts during the height of the pandemic, although I am not sure I would have had the energy to write some days.  There are days I remember more than others; days that stood out as particularly saddening, days where the enormity of the pandemic really hit home, and days that blurred into nights and then back to days.  The sheer isolation from all but work colleagues during lockdown was hard and even post-lockdown, the overwhelming feeling of needing to still keep a safe distance from vulnerable friends and family, given the type of work that I do, was more prominent than I expected.

But there were days that kept me going.  They say the little things matter and I feel they really do.  The taking-it-in-turns to buy the coffee, the handwritten note on a post-it left for me to find, or the chocolates “just because”.  And then there was the ‘almost-delirious’ five-minutes when I left work on time for the first time in a while (probably my own fault it hadn’t happened sooner).  The bringing together of people throughout COVID-19 has served as a remarkable positive despite the sheer devastation.  The daily check-ins of ‘how are you’, ‘are you O.K.’ and ‘can I help?’ were needed more than I would have admitted at the time and sometimes these exchanges were from colleagues of whom I’d never met before.  For me, that call from a ward clerk to simply order stock but also to check-in, spoke volumes of the wider team that we in the laboratory are part of.

Outside of work, there was no escaping COVID-19 – fact or fiction.  Our scientific network primarily on Twitter grew and it was here we were able to best support each other, united in our work and passion for science.  In March I really felt we needed to check-in on each other more formally and so I ran an additional #IBMSChat (usually a once-monthly chat on Twitter for Biomedical Science enthusiasts) given the circumstances.  It was surprising to find many of us sharing similar stories.

The very nature of the work that we do as laboratory professionals means that it is often hidden from the public-eye. Working with biological specimens and sometimes in containment facilities, it doesn’t always make for an appropriate environment to invite the public in, or even much of the wider staff in the hospitals that many of our laboratories are in.  Still, many of us professionals want to increase the exposure of the work that we do given that RCPath estimate that around 95% of clinical pathways rely on patients having access to pathology services.  It is ironic that pre-pandemic (I feel like this year is divided into pre- and post-pandemic, if you can even say that we are ‘post’), we, as Biomedical Scientists, or indeed, laboratory professionals in general (given that every role is valuable) were not as widely known about, or thought of.  You might say we still have a long way to go, but I truly feel that now, more than ever, our profession is in the spotlight and we are shining bright.

My personal job satisfaction has soared throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  Yes there were certainly low-days, yes it was all-consuming and relentless at times, and yes there were days that I literally dreamt about COVID-19, but I really do feel I have been able to make a difference.  That clinically urgent sample that was prioritised to get a patient back to their care-home, having the statistics ready to present to the wider hospital team to ensure we manage our approaches approachably or simply playing a hands-on role within a team has really made me feel that I am a part of something that is so much bigger than I.  Despite the sheer chaos of 2020, it has only further confirmed to me why I love working in the field that I do!

This blog was published as part of our Showcasing Science: Behind the scenes of COVID19 series. Read the rest of the blogs here.