Publish date: 04 March 2021

Life Support.jpg

A new book written by UCLH critical care consultant, Dr Jim Down, publishes today (4 March). The book, ‘Life Support: diary of an ICU doctor on the frontline of the Covid crisis’, starts just as the first national lockdown is announced and takes the reader through to the peak and the beginning of the recovery phase in May 2020.

Dr Jim Down has worked in ICU at UCLH since 2005, where life and death decisions are an everyday occurrence. However, nothing could have prepared him and his colleagues for the events of spring 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic descended. In the book, he tells the extraordinary month-by-month story of how as the nation came to a standstill, the hospital was transformed, staff donned PPE, received an unprecedented influx of patients, and faced the biggest challenge in the history of the NHS.

Jim Down (Credit Kalpesh Lathigra) USE.jpg
Photo credit: Kalpesh Lathigra

Dr Jim Down, UCLH critical care consultant and author of Life Support, said: 

“One of the reasons why I wanted to write this book was to give an insight into what intensive care is and how it changed in the pandemic. Most people do not get to see ICU unless they are a patient or a relative.” 

“I also wanted to show the extraordinary effort and achievement by staff in managing to triple the size of intensive care whilst caring for the sickest patients we have ever seen. The whole of the multidisciplinary team, both inside and outside the unit, made this happen, whether they were continuing in their usual roles or taking on new ones. How the ICU staff assimilated all the fantastic redeployed staff and clinical volunteers into the team while continuing to deliver high quality of care has been astounding.”

Elaine Thorpe, UCLH critical care matron, who Jim makes reference to in the book along with other colleagues, said:

“Writing this book was a brave thing for Jim to do. Two words spring to mind - the beauty and the brutality - of what the team has experienced over the past year. Jim really captures what critical care is all about, how it can only work with a team of individuals that want to do the right thing. He has really captured the essence and the beauty of the team, the still dedication.”

“It has been brutal: the enormous personal cost to patients and families who have been bereaved and not been able to see loved ones; the impact on staff and decisions we had to make. We had never seen this. We would go in to work each day and a new thing would have happened.” 

“Jim’s book is so honest. He’s such an amazing human being. He’s doing this for us, not for himself. He’s doing it for humanity.” 

“It’s going to be a hard read, but people do need to read it.” 

Another colleague he talks about, Dr Alice Carter, UCLH critical care consultant, who has been responsible for managing redeployed staff and volunteers in ICU, said: 

“Jim’s memory of events is impressive. For me, the first peak is a bit of a blur, especially after the last few months. He has written this from the heart. It is an honest and true reflection of what he and all of us were going through at that time. We were facing the unknown. We had to massively up-skill people in a short space of time. It was a huge learning curve for all of us and traumatic for the whole department.” 

“It will be hard re-living that reading the book, but therapeutic. Now is the time we’re more at risk psychologically as we are starting to come down from the second peak. When we were in the thick of it, we were just surviving the next shift.”

“Jim being able to write this is helpful and therapeutic for all of us, the guilt we all felt, questioning whether we were doing the right thing, our interactions with families.” 

“I think his book will be helpful for relatives of patients who were not able to visit loved ones, and for the public, to help them to understand how this consumed our lives for a whole year. It is a glimpse of what it was like.”

Dr Rik Thomas, UCLH consultant and clinical lead for critical care, who has worked alongside Jim for many years, said:

“This is an important book. The first wave had a huge impact on modern healthcare, the second wave is an interesting point in history, but no longer unprecedented.”

“Jim captures the logistical upheaval and caused by the pandemic but also the effect on the individual. No one working at the time had ever been through anything like this and we all had similar anxieties to Jim. Everyone was frightened. No one knew what was going to happen to the hospital, to our families and to wider society.”

“He captures a moment in time exactly as it was. There will likely never be another moment like it, almost certainly not in our lifetimes.”

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