Meet the national team coach who is working nights in a coronavirus ward | Sport

In his playing days, Nathan Graham captained Scotland and played full-back for Dewsbury, North Sydney Bears, Bradford Bulls, Featherstone Rovers and York. Since retiring he has worked his way up the ranks as a coach, working with Scotland’s amateur team, their student side and, as of last year, the senior team. Throughout this period he has also worked in the hospital wards.

How did you end up working night shifts at Bradford Royal Infirmary?
“My day-to-day role is to be an operating department practitioner, so basically I’m the anaesthetist’s assistant in theatre. I look after the anaesthetic machines, all their equipment, check the airways, drips and position the patients for surgery. So we have crossover skills for Covid patients on ventilators – we know how it all works. I’m mainly in the Covid ward – I’m not sure what that says about me!”

How prepared were you for this?
“When the hospital knew what was coming we had a crash course in ICU training for a couple of weeks in the build-up, so got everything prepared. They planned in some night shifts for us so as soon as the hospital became overwhelmed with Covid patients they could switch us to nights. I got a couple of days notice. The majority of theatre staff are on Covid wards, but there is not enough ICU staff so more had to be trained up. Instead of my normal 8am-to-6pm shifts on Monday to Friday, I’m working 7pm until 7.30am now on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.”

How badly has Covid-19 hit your hospital?
“There are up to about 26 Covid patients across two wards. Bradford built a brand new ICU ward four or five years ago and they mothballed the old one, so they’ve been able to rekit that out with beds and ventilators and use it as a Covid ward. We try to keep a section clear for emergency surgery, as that still has to function as normal. We treat everything as if it’s infected – that’s the only way to keep everyone safe.”

How different is this to your usual experience?
“Normally I don’t see patients more than once as they come in for surgery and leave. But working on the ward, I see them again on the next shift. If you’re looking after someone, you get attached to them. You build up a relationship, albeit a one-way one, get to know them and their family. Their family might ring in the night for an update, so you know how they are feeling about it.”

It must be desperately tough for everyone, especially the families…
“The hospital has set up Skype in the ward now so families can see their relatives in there but I feel for them, having to see their loved one for the last time via video call or occasionally one person is allowed in for a 30-minute end-of-life visit. They have to wear all the protective gear. No one wants to be in that situation, not being allowed to touch your loved one when they’re dying. That’s the worst thing. I can’t say I’ve got used to it.”

Nathan Graham takes Scotland training.

Graham guides his team in a training session. Photograph: Mark Brown/Scotland Rugby League

How is seeing more loss of life impacting on you mentally?
“I’m OK, but it’s difficult at times. Deaths in theatre are a very rare occurrence, so seeing people die isn’t something you usually see. Trying to learn a new role on the job and seeing some terribly ill people has been tough and pretty intense.”

There seem to be parallels between the teamwork in rugby and in medical teams…
“Definitely. The staff have been great and look out for each other. We have a good team and we’ve been working together since this all started. The hospital trust have set up a phone line where you can talk if you are struggling and there are quiet rooms so you can get away somewhere peaceful. The coordinator usually tries to allow us decent breaks to get a breather and give your face a rest from the respirators, which are very uncomfortable. It’s not all doom and gloom. We’ve had patients come in, get well and leave the ward. There are success stories.”

You’ve been juggling two very different worlds – rugby league and hospitals – for two decades now…
“Time flies! I qualified in 2001 so I’m used to the hospital environment: people on ventilators, drips, IV lines. It’s not as daunting as it would be if you walked in off the street and saw it all, or watching it on the news, where it looks horrendous. It’s just putting all the PPE gear on which is a pain in the arse! We wear the same stuff regardless of which wards we’re in: the masks, visors etc.”

How are you managing without the release rugby normally provides you?
“I seem to have a lot more time to spare when I’m not working. Usually my weekends are taken up coaching or watching my two boys playing rugby. But we’ve been lucky with the weather and been able to spend time as a family in the garden, doing all those jobs that usually get put off, having BBQs, and the standard weekly quiz online with other families.”

Nathan Graham back in his days as a player at Bradford Bulls.

Graham back in his days as a player at Bradford Bulls. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Is it hard to imagine you could be leading Scotland out against Australia in the World Cup 18 months from now?
“I suppose so. I’m dealing with Covid patients while Mal Meninga’s in his office planning! Some people thought the World Cup draw [Scotland were drawn against Australia, Fiji and Italy] was a nightmare, but I think it’s great. If you want to play anyone, you want to play Australia. You should want to judge yourself against the best in the world. It will be a fantastic experience for the players and everyone involved, just as it was in the Four Nations. I’ve heard it might be in Newcastle, which would be brilliant.”

Scotland will almost certainly have to beat Fiji – who have reached the last three semi-finals – to get out of the group…
“True, but don’t discount Italy. We’ll have to put in a performance to beat them, and if we don’t, it won’t matter what we do against Fiji. That’s what happened to Italy last time: they lost the opening game to Ireland and it was all over. Italy will have all their overseas players, so they will be a threat. I’m confident we’ll be good enough to put in a performance against Fiji, but we’ll need a few helping hands.”

You also have more time with the squad than in most previous campaigns…
“Not being a full-time coach at a club allowed me to devote more time to Scotland than some of my predecessors. I can’t imagine how anyone does it if they’re coaching at a club, too. We had four or five sessions on Saturday mornings and four Wednesday nights, which is probably the equivalent of being in camp for another two weeks. You need that time together, not just to prepare the playing structure but also to mix, to build the team, make sure people are happy. We brought in some of the best players from the Scottish domestic comp and Scotland Students – we wanted more players involved.”

What was the most pleasing aspect of your qualifying campaign?
“Beating a decent Greece side was great. Moreover, the way the lads gelled, knitted together and bought into what we wanted to do. The majority of our full-time players were involved, although one or two clubs pulled their players out of the Greece game. The feedback from the lads was that it was one of the best camps they’ve been in for a long time. They all enjoyed it and put in a couple of good performances. Hopefully that will get back to the likes of Kane Linnett and Lachlan Coote, because we want them back in the squad for the Euros.”

Scotland face Italy and France if the Euros go ahead…
“Yeah it’s all up in the air, which is frustrating. I just want to get stuck in. The plan was that any player not there for the Euros would find it hard to get into the World Cup squad. We want to not just look at the players, but challenge them. There’s no point playing the Euros if we all field B teams – it’s supposed to be preparation for the World Cup. As soon as the training ban is lifted we’ll get the lads together and start building. We have a meeting in May but it doesn’t look good at the moment.”

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