Covid 19 Volunteering

by Karen Neill

Volunteering

We all have our own personal experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, it’s far different to others. Each one of us has a personal story that came from what happened during that awful time, but my story began in March 2020.

Like most people in the United Kingdom, I felt a desperate need to help the NHS as we could see it crumbling before our eyes, and the fear of losing something so valuable, and the population of the UK suffering because of it, was unthinkable.

I had to do something to help but I just didn’t know how. I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to keep my business open during the lockdowns due to being an essential service, as we at Zenith have an MOT station and obviously Motorcycle repair facility. We were able to help keep essential workers and volunteers running and riding during the lockdowns. Most of our clients during this time were medical staff such as nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers and so on. So at the beginning, this was all I knew that I could do to help these people and the people whose very lives depended on them.

In the early days of the pandemic – I’m sure you will remember- things were incredibly terrifying.

As myself and my partner were both key workers we would still have to leave the house every day to go to work. My partner would take the tube into central London. Sometimes sending me photos of empty eerie train carriages at rush hour where she was the only passenger. London had ground to a halt. Most mornings I was terrified of opening the front door because, at this point, we knew very little about the virus, but only that it could in some instances be deadly. I honestly felt a lump in my throat most days that I didn’t know what the day would bring.

Volunteering During Covid

As March became April, I found out through my good friend Anton that the Bike Shed motorcycle organisation was running a service where motorcycle riders could volunteer to deliver PPE and items that were made at home by garment workers, and people who had skills with sewing machines to be delivered to hospitals, surgeries and care facilities. Wherever there was an incredible lack of PPE, we transported it as part of a huge Motorcycle network across the United Kingdom. We acted like relay riders to get these essential pieces of equipment where they needed to be.

Naturally, in my desire to help this was the best way I could think of and jumped at the chance of volunteering. During those times we could be picking up thousands of home-made masks and put them on the back of our motorcycles and carry them to a drop-off point where another rider would collect them and transport them to the next location. The masks that I picked up from the makers in London could end up in Glasgow and vice versa. It was really an unbelievable system that was well thought out in what was a very very short amount of time, so I have to give credit to the Bike Shed for this.

By May 2020, the service had moved in another direction. We were still delivering PPE but also we had teamed up with Covid Crisis Rescue Foundation run by Dr Sharon Raymond and we were being used to deliver pulse oximeters to Covid patients at home to reduce the danger of death by silent hypoxia, which was one of the biggest dangers of COVID-19. We were a fast response service used by 999, GP’s and Covid hubs. We would generally deliver oximeters to patients within one hour and the service was London-wide. Our base was at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London.

So this became my life, keeping Zenith open during the day and, after work in the evening, driving and riding around London, delivering pulse oximeters to patients sometimes for 4 or 5 hours at a time one delivery after another day and night after night.

Volunteering During Covid
Karen Neill Volunteering During Covid

As the year went on December came, and that’s when things really took a turn for the worst as the virus started to peak. Hospitals became overwhelmed medical staff became ill. Ambulances became rarer and rarer. We were really in trouble. This is when the service really came into its own and deliveries had to be ramped up. Some evenings I would be out from 5:30 pm to 1 am or 2 am. It just seemed endless. Those of us who could volunteer on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve and Boxing Day did so.

With the help of my dad, I volunteered all through Christmas 2020 and into New Year’s. There are many deliveries and many individual patients that stick in my mind. One of those was on New Year’s Eve. We were all told to be careful when not gathering in groups by the government, to be careful and cautious when celebrating the festivities. This particular delivery I accepted was at 10:45 pm on New Year’s Eve in North London. I remember having to literally fight my way through crowds of people in a corridor in a block of flats where a huge party was being held. The daughter-in-law of the patient I needed to deliver to was desperate for help. She didn’t know what to do. She called an ambulance that morning but no ambulance was coming. She knew there was no help coming and all I could do was provide her with the oximeter and comfort in the knowledge that her father-in-law was seriously ill, and may not see the night through.

The thing about these times was, that I will never forget the look of desperation in people’s eyes and the disbelief that our health system had literally ground to a halt. There was no help. No ambulances, no space in A&E, and the fact that people don’t discuss this anymore and just accept it almost as a fate I will never be able to understand or accept. Our system failed. Our government failed us and that cost lives and that is something I will neither ever be able to forgive nor forget. I can’t describe to you the anger I felt that evening, as I walked back down the stairs of the apartment block once again, down through the crowd of people in the corridors that I had to push my way through to leave the building, I wanted to stop and turn and scream at them all that there was a man dying upstairs and it could be anyone of them at any time, but obviously we had a code of conduct and I would always stick to that code of conduct. Even now, my feelings towards the people that behaved this way, during this time are of anger. I hope they look back and feel a twinge of regret over their behaviour.

As the Covid pandemic wore on, we became more and more experienced and faster and faster at our responses, things became difficult. Obviously, when the lockdowns stopped and people returned to work, even though things were still bad we were still needed. We became short of volunteers so the amount of runs that we had to do individually became a bigger burden, but somehow we managed it. In snow, rain and in the unbearable summer heat we continued. I’m proud to say that we have continued until this day. We haven’t been needed for months now, but should we be, we will be there.

Covid Crisis Rescue Foundation exists out of a time in history that I wished we hadn’t needed to exist, but I’m proud that I volunteered and, I’m proud that I was one of hundreds of thousands of people across the United Kingdom who stepped up, took their fears and put them to one side to help their neighbour, their friend and strangers. The volunteer system in the UK worked because we believed in a greater cause, that of something called humanity. I must admit I had hopes that when this crisis was over the world would be a more united place and that we would speak to our neighbours, and continue to care for them. That we would be stronger together and that the sense of community would remain. That we were all working together rather than against each other. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.

I have to say looking back and writing this it has been difficult for me to revisit my experiences. I’ve seen the devastation that COVID-19 caused first hand and when I speak to people that don’t believe in it or don’t believe it is real, I have to tell myself that is for the individual to decide. I’m not here to educate. I’m not here to try and convince somebody who doesn’t want to be convinced that COVID-19 was indeed real and deadly and it was indeed out of control. What I would like to tell you is what my own experience was. That it was heartbreaking and our health service was crippled yet somehow it managed to survive.

Every delivery I made I ran a risk of catching COVID-19, ironically it turns out that my GP missed me off of the list of people that should have been shielding due to an autoimmune disease I have, but every time I went out on a delivery, I remembered the doctors’ nurses, hospital porters, cooks, hospital cleaners and security guards that were working every day that were running the same and more increased risk as us volunteers. I did it for them and I would do it again in a heartbeat because they are the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

I dedicate this blog, to my fellow volunteers Min, Stephen, Michelle, Ben, Racheal, Anton, Andy, Sarah B, Jermey and all of you whom I had the pleasure of riding with and experiencing your selfless willingness to help the human race at a time of need.

Finally to Dr Sharon Raymond. Your commitment to the medical profession and the community of the world is beyond comprehension. Please do not ever change.

Volunteering During Covid

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Member of Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI)
Member of Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI)
Member of National Motorcycle Dealers Association (NMDA)
Haringey Council Contractor