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Breathtaking - Book Review

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Published February 5th 2021
Doctor takes us inside the NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic
As a frontline health worker during the COVID-19 pandemic, palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke is well-placed to share her experiences. Covering the period from when the virus first became a known threat in early 2020, through the first wave until the end of April of last year, this is a no-holds barred account of what havoc it wreaked.

Clarke, whose best-selling Dear Life took us into the world of her Oxford hospice, now moves into the on-site hospital and is caring for COVID-positive patients. In heartbreaking detail, she shares stories of families ripped apart by an unseen enemy, of patients drowning in their own lungs, of sons and daughters unable to have that most basic need of sitting with their loved ones as they die.

Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke
Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke


But it's also a damning judgement on a government who, Clarke believes, locked down too late and fatefully failed to provide sufficient safeguards and personal protective equipment for those frontline workers.

Time and again Clarke tells us how her colleagues were putting their own lives on the line just to do their jobs – caring for sick patients. In rooms where the temperature is turned up and seals prevent the virus escaping, health professionals in insufficient PPE were at the mercy of a captive virus. Indeed, Clarke dedicates this book to four of her colleagues who died providing that care.

And Clarke herself has to face those terrible dilemmas as she comes home one evening to discover her young daughter has been crying because she is afraid her mum is going to die from COVID. Clarke, like hundreds, if not thousands, of other frontline workers, is in the agonising position of trying to choose between the people she cares for professionally and her own loved ones.

Told with humanity and humility, Clarke ensures we see the faces of colleagues, the patients and their loved ones. These are the people behind the terrifying statistics shared at Government press briefings. A former journalist, Clarke is a great writer, who captures this intensity wonderfully. She gives us one haunting image which in many ways encapsulates the desperation of families separated from their loved ones: "A new phenomenon emerged, perhaps the most plaintive sight I have ever seen in the hospital. A handful of parked cars began to appear each day, all of them angled so as to face the hospital. Their occupants sit impassively, sometimes for hours, staring at the threshold they are forbidden from crossing. The watchers hold vigil, strained and desperate, unable to resist being as near as possible to the person they love…"

As so many of us struggle with this latest lockdown, Clarke's book also reminds us each of our own responsibility to cut the viral chain and ensure the safety of frontline staff like her and her colleagues. Breathtaking is an essential read for anyone attempting to understand the human cost of the COVID pandemic.
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Why? A frontline doctor takes us inside hospital wards during the COVID-19 pandemic
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