‘Baptism of fire’: meet two female footballers working in hospitals | Football

“It’s been an absolute baptism of fire,” says the nurse and Portsmouth left-back Rosie McDonnell. “I was told it was going to be hard but I didn’t quite think we’d be in a pandemic.”

When McDonnell qualified as a nurse in September and began work at Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital, juggling that with football, it was “difficult”, and that was before coronavirus ruptured societal norms.

“There’s a bit of a strange atmosphere at the hospital,” she says. “People are visiting less and there’s lots of change going on. People are adapting with every day that goes by; more plans come into place, different equipment, different strategies to try and manage the workload. It’s not horrendous at the moment where I am – I know that ICU [intensive care] and high-care areas are struggling a lot more – but there is a bit of a sense that we’re getting ready to deal with a bigger influx of patients, which is a little daunting. But credit to everyone I work with, no one has shied away from work.”

Portsmouth’s season has gone, with the National League South voided as a result of the crisis, and McDonnell misses the escape the sport provides. “It is nice when you’ve had a stressful week you can go to football training and just forget about it for a couple of hours,” she says.

But there is a modicum of relief too for McDonnell, who doesn’t have to choose between her two passions. “It has helped in that sense. I do love playing football but there’s more important things in life. I look forward to getting back into it but for now it needs to be on the back burner.”

The Championship defender Hayley West, who plays for London Bees, is a sports therapist in her final year on a pre-registration physiotherapy masters, a two-year accelerated programme, and epitomises the drive that healthcare professionals feel during crisis.

Having just completed her fifth of six placements at Whitechapel’s Royal London Hospital, she is waiting for the outcome of talks between the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and the professional council about graduating students early so she can throw herself back into the breach. In the meantime, she is picking up shifts as a rehab support worker with a community physiotherapy team.

West saw big changes at the Royal London, where she finished late last month. “There was training all over the place. You’ve got the intranet which is updated with Covid protocols every single day. There is an office which is open in the morning for staff members, in the afternoon for students only, and you can go there and ask them anything about Covid.”

Hayley West picks out some shop workers for praise: ‘They are risking themselves just so we can have food.’

Hayley West picks out some shop workers for praise: ‘They are risking themselves just so we can have food.’ Photograph: Sean Ryan for The FA/Shutterstock

The physiotherapy team is being brought together and split into two, to cope with the changes and ensure specialities are spread all over the hospital. “You just don’t know how many patients are going to end up having it or how many wards are going to be changed from, like, a trauma ward to a high dependency unit. There’s no point in having the one physio on a trauma ward and all of a sudden they’ve got to deal with high-dependency patients.”

For some, sport and coronavirus have been very separate, for others, like McDonnell and West, they are entwined. Although the worlds are very different, there are similarities to the ethos in a football team and on a ward. “There’s not that strong a link between healthcare and football but they are very similar environments,” McDonnell says. “You have challenges in football, you rise to the big games, you have to do things you wouldn’t normally do to get the team through and it’s the same in healthcare.”

West agrees: “One hundred percent. Everyone works with everyone, every discipline. At work they are absolutely brilliant. At lunchtime, in the team I’ve just finished with, there was a rule that you don’t talk about Covid over lunch. You’ve got 10 minutes before lunch where you can raise concerns but actually during lunch there’s music played, we all sat two metres apart, which is quite amusing, but you’re there and just chatting and having a nice time.”

Both, have felt humbled by the support for health workers and the shift in consciousness on who holds value in society. “I finished my shift, and there was the applause at 8pm and it just made everything feel so much more valued,” says McDonnell. “None of the work has changed, the effort has always been going in, but it’s really lovely to see that appreciated.”

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“It’s been a wake-up call,” says West. “Last week when we stood outside and clapped I actually got really emotional. Because there’s stuff that’s going on behind closed doors that most of the country won’t see but they are recognising and clapping for it. I was clapping for it but I’m a tiny part of a bigger thing.

“I’ve had my eyes opened too about shop workers, lorry drivers and stuff. There’s a lot of: ‘Oh they only work in a shop. Oh they only stack shelves in Tesco.’ When you’re 16 and want a job it is: ‘Go and work in Tesco, that will be all right.’ Actually, it’s those people right now that’s are keeping the country going.

“They are risking themselves just so we can have food. [Then there are] the people that are volunteering; every family member helping out. It’s insane and great. I don’t know if you can really put the NHS on top of everyone else. The NHS might be saving lives but the shopworkers are too.”

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