Our founder’s personal account of the pandemic…..

It was March 9th 2020. I was at Heathrow airport on my way to New York, ready for a fundraising event hosted by the British Consul. I was still unsure about getting on the plane, given the news that was coming out all the time about a mysterious virus. I telephoned from the departure lounge, and was assured by the event organiser that it could still go ahead. By the time my plane had landed, everything had changed. The Foreign Office in London had advised that no events with more than 50 people should take place. I stayed a couple of days and had some useful meetings, but there was an eerie feeling about the place – people were nervous and travelling on the metro felt very risky. I left New York on 12th March, the day that the WHO announced the pandemic.

When Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown on 23rd March, I went into the office to gather up my things, ready to work from home. I particularly remember a call with Mirela, our CEO in Romania, who told me that without warning, most of the cancer patients in Bucharest had been discharged from hospital to make room for Covid-19 patients. They had not been given any directions on what to do next so it was not surprising that the hospice telephone had been ringing continually with a lot of desperate family members asking for help.

By the Friday of that week, I was feeling a bit shivery. Then the cough started, and later that week I had shortness of breath. Climbing the stairs was like climbing up a high altitude mountain!  It was beautiful weather, so I just tried to sit it out in the garden and recover. At one point, my wife insisted on calling 111 and there was just a brief moment when I realised it could be quite serious. I didn’t want to go to hospital so I told the doctor I would give it one more day. Fortunately, that evening, I started to feel better and by the next day I felt like my old self again. But the experience certainly made me think about our patients with cystic fibrosis, when they get unwell and find it hard to breathe – and not just for a few days like me!

When I was able to get back to working a couple of weeks later, I found that everything had been well taken care of by Anna and the team and the special Covid-19 appeal that we had launched was already taking off. The generous way in which our donors responded was really humbling. I was able to communicate with our country partners through Zoom on an almost daily basis, reassuring them and helping to suggest ways of adapting our services to the new reality. All our day care services had to close, including the new Children’s day care and therapy centre at Copaceni, on the instructions of the government, to minimise risk to very vulnerable patients. But our home-care and in-patient services were allowed to continue under very strict rules. Each patient admitted to the in-patient unit had to spend 3 days in isolation before being admitted to a ward. If their test came back positive for Covid-19, they had to be moved, again under government rules, to a Covid-19 hospital. It was very hard for our staff when patients who were known to us, pleaded to stay, but we were unable to let them.

The virus also affected some of our own staff, despite taking all the safety measures we could. One of our doctors caught the virus from one of her family members, and the whole family (three generations) were struck down. Our doctor was fearful of her husband being admitted to hospital so she brought an oxygen bottle and treated him at home, despite feeling very unwell herself. She felt that this would give him a much better chance of recovery, and it did. But her mother-in- law sadly passed away. This was a very worrying time for all.

 

By late summer, the situation had eased a little and it looked hopeful that the pandemic was coming to an end. How wrong we were!

One big worry was how the fundraising in Romania would be affected. Many businesses had suffered losses and were not in a position to give us their usual support. However, miraculously we managed to find new donors who were in a position to help. It was challenging of course; we tried to play our part in making sure we kept our expenses to an absolute minimum and the staff themselves made a number of sacrifices. We also found new ways of helping even more patients than ever before. Through technology we were able to provide support on-line to patients right across Romania and Serbia. In Serbia, we were asked by the cancer hospital in Belgrade to help them by distributing aid and medications to cancer patients who were suddenly left without help when the hospital had to close. This was a great opportunity to have a closer cooperation.

During Christmas time, a second and more deadly wave of the virus affected South East Europe, and cases began to rise. By March, all hospital beds in Romania were full. When two patients admitted to the Brasov hospice tested positive, there was no room in any of the Covid-19 hospitals, so they had to stay. This meant closing the unit to any more new patients for two weeks. More staff in Serbia, Moldova and Albania caught the virus during this period and some of them were quite unwell. Thankfully, we did not lose any of them. The stories of patients and how they were faring during this time were often heart-rending.

It all brings home to me how fortunate we are to live in the UK, and especially now that we have had such good and rapid access to vaccines. In Moldova, for example, the only vaccines that they have in the country is a small quantity that was donated by Romania.

I want to end by thanking all our supporters for their help in getting us through this crisis so far. If we had had to close any of our services, many patients would have been without any help at all.

A grateful family member in Belgrade summed it up like this:

“We realised at one point that my mother was not getting any better. This is when we needed special support because we were running out of energy, both mentally and physically. During the corona pandemic, we no longer even knew who to turn to for help because no one here wants to deal with patients once they get to the last stage of their illness. Due to circumstances and out of despair, I found BELhospice, not realising at that time how much these wonderful people would help me and my family, especially Dr Ivona, for whose kindness, support and advice I do not have enough words of gratitude. Thanks to her and the whole team my mum got to live another few months. This would not have been possible without their precious help. I will never forget them for that.”

 

Graham Perolls

April 2021