Life Support: Diary of an ICU doctor on the frontline of the Covid crisis

We have now all lived through a year of Covid. It has affected each of us in different ways. We can all admit that it has been a challenging year. However, the frontline of the Covid crisis has been the ICU units up and down the country. I don’t think any of us can begin to imagine what it has been like for the NHS medical staff, and whilst we have stood on our doorsteps and clapped them, now more than ever, we might want to understand what it was like for them truly. This book, Life Support: Diary of an ICU doctor on the frontline of the Covid crisis by Jim Down, gives one a very personal insight and, at the same time, is deeply affecting.

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I heard Jim Down, the author of Life Support, interviewed on Times Radio and was touched by how caring and modest he was and yet also so self-deprecating. He explained how nothing had prepared him and his team for the events of spring 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic descended.

I cannot begin to comprehend the level of responsibility he had running the ICU unit of University College Hospital, London. He worked exceptionally long hours, and when he returned home, his focus had to change to try to protect his own family from this perilous virus.

Jim Down, along with all of his colleagues, must have been frustrated when we, the general public, did not adhere to the lockdown rules set out by the government. Reading his book showed me how much he worried and cared for the patients he was trying to save together with their family and loved ones. Even though it is just words on a page, you can feel the heat and discomfort the medical staff had to endure working in their PPE. Their exhaustion and frustration shouted out from every chapter. But they never gave up.

This book is about the first wave and lockdown. It makes one wonder how the NHS staff faced the second and third waves as they would now know what to expect. It reminded me of when I was young hearing from my grandfather how he served in the army and survived WW1, and then just over 20 years later, he faced WWII, once again as a serving officer. You get the feeling from the book that Jim Down felt he was fortunate not to have contracted Covid in that first wave, especially when he had lost medical colleagues.

We know how skilled our doctors and nurses are, but this book shows how these skills in the ICU units had to be called upon every minute of every day. When they lose a patient, they do dwell on it and feel they have failed. They continually question how they might have served the patient differently.

If I admired our NHS medics before reading this book, Life Support, I am now in complete awe of them all, and they are my 2020 heroes. They are a dedicated, hardworking team, and all of us should read this book to understand how lucky we are to have an NHS. It is not a long book, and there is a full glossary at the end so you can understand all the initialisms. This book is warm, honest and humorous and I highly recommend it.

Following reading this book, I watched on the ITV Hub a feature-length documentary by Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald – 2020: A Story of Us – which tells the story of Coronavirus in Britain. I think we owe it to our NHS to read and/or watch both of these so that we can understand their work more fully.