Day in the life of a Lancashire vaccination hub
Tony Dewhurst witnesses a snapshot of life on Covid-19 vaccine front line as dedicated NHS staff at Bamber Bridge’s Ryan Medical Centre bring hope back to their community
An unhurried procession of elderly people arrived for their vaccines, some being helped out of cars and taxis or up the ramp in wheelchairs.
Patiently, and in single file, they gave their names and then they were ushered in from the cold by a courteous NHS Covid-19 Vaccination Volunteer.
I stood outside in the drizzle thinking is this what heroism looks like: the methodical and caring work of the staff, the courageous patients, as well as those brilliant scientists who developed the vaccines.
The Ryan Medical Centre, shoehorned between two rows of red-bricked terraced houses in the beating heart of Bamber Bridge, serves the health needs of the community.
They started vaccinating here in the final few hours of 2020 – a year that changed all our lives – and have delivered 11,000 jabs in 12 weeks.
It is just after 9am and suddenly this vibrant place of optimism and energy slides effortlessly into fifth gear.
Nurse Christine Hopkins, from Hoghton, pops her head around the blue curtain from vaccination cubicle three and calmly requests, ‘More vaccine, please.’
Ramona Ibrahim, Bridgedale Primary Care Network Business Manager, is quick off the starting blocks.
She carries a tray of precious Pfizer vaccine with all the care and tenderness as if it were a new-born baby. We were vaccinating on New Year’s Eve, and it was freezing – pitch dark outside. There were fireworks going off, rockets in the air, and I’ll never forget that day,” recalled Ramona.
“This virus is touching all of us, your family and my family, and we will not stop until we’ve got everybody vaccinated. This is a national and international emergency and what motivates us every day is to get this done, to do our bit to bring hope and happiness back to our community and the country.”
Then she briefly averted her gaze, adding: “People are very fragile right now, so it is more important than ever that we cultivate kindness and compassion. You know, just a smile or a kind word, because some people might have lost a loved one or have difficulties at home. It is crucial to say that we are here for you, to re-assure people that there will be a way out of this via the vaccine.”
Ramona, a mum of two children and who has served the NHS for 13 years, has the kinetic energy of Wonder Woman. If you plugged her into the National Grid, she would light up half of Lancashire with her boundless enthusiasm, work ethic and vibrant love of life.
As most people’s alarms were ringing, she had already delivered a motivational speech to her loyal squad of nurses, doctors, volunteers and administrators that simply brought a tear to your eye.
She must eat kryptonite for breakfast and if sombre Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, could see this slick operation in full flow he would be grinning like a Cheshire Cat locked in a creamery.
But modestly Ramona says: “If we have a tough day, we just pick each other up.”
Sometimes, though, superlatives struggle to get the measure of the moment but this snapshot of life on Britain’s vaccine front line reveals a pulsating and compassionate environment of love, care and dedication.
The Vaccination Centre is a white ballroom wedding tent. And with the medics and nurses, dressed head to toe in surgical scrubs, it could be a scene from Mash, (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) from the 1960’s American comedy drama hit.
There’s a maelstrom of emotion beneath the surface too as the vaccinators engage with their patients, small selfless acts of tender nursing care, and encouragement as heroic as the larger ones that might save a life in a city Accident and Emergency Centre.
Briefly, the vaccinators grab a mid-morning ‘cuppa. Dr Anne Allister is a kind-hearted, jolly lady, who served the Ryan Medical Centre for 30-odd years before retiring in 2015.
She has returned to her old practice as a volunteer clinician, and when she greets her former patients, they are instantly re-assured and at ease as they roll up their sleeves for a second time.
“A lot of the older people are frightened to go out still, and this is a real ordeal for some of them,” said Anne, whose husband serves as a volunteer. Many have only left their homes twice in 12 months, both times to be vaccinated.
“They are very brave, and the Ryan Medical Centre has been great for the ones who struggle with mobility, to come to a little centre like this. It gives them a sense of confidence and trust to be here, at their local medical centre.”
Dr Clive Barker from Grimsargh is a warm spirited man, and he too has briefly come out of retirement to offer his services free during the health emergency. Clive spent most of his career serving as a GP at Chorley’s Library House Surgery.
“The vaccine is a way out for people from the sadness of isolation,” said Clive. “It will, hopefully, also keep people safe from the trauma of getting Covid-19, but also from losing loved ones or dying. I never thought I’d witness a pandemic, but to be helping in a small way is very humbling indeed.”
He adds: “Because the vaccination programme has been run by the NHS, with the dedication and expertise of their staff in comparison to how the Government has tackled many aspects of the pandemic, it has proved to be a big success.”
You had to feel it, had to see it, to witness the joy etched in their faces and it was an extraordinary privilege to be there.
“That’s how it feels,” said Nurse Hopkins. “People are happy to be here getting the vaccine and it is a nice feeling to help the community. We’ve got the easy bit, putting a needle into an arm.”
One proud old gentleman tells me that he has hiked up Cinnamon Hill, from Walton-le-Dale to Bamber Bridge, to receive his second jab.
“After I was vaccinated, I wanted to shake the hands of the people here, but of course you can’t and that is what Covid-19 has taken away from us,” he says. “I know of people who have died, friends who’ve become very sick. I’ve seen many things in my life, but our NHS is incredible - the best in the world. I told one of the nurses that she was a hero and she replied, ‘Thank-you sir, but I’m just doing my job.’
He added: “I’d say to everyone, please get the vaccine – it saves lives. Like the chap on television JVT (Professor Jonathan Van Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer) says: ‘It is better in your arm than in the fridge.’
Grace Rudman is the practice secretary at the Ryan Medical Centre and tells me that people have shed tears when she has called them for their vaccine appointments.
“There’s a lot of raw emotion, people crying,” said Grace.
She adds: “One lovely lady said: ‘You’ve made my year. Thank you.’ You know, the gratefulness of that patient, that they’ve now got hope in their lives. That made me very emotional and I couldn’t stay long on the ‘phone as I was emotional too.”
In a few months Britain has created one of the fastest and most effective vaccination programmes on the planet.
About 32 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a Coronavirus vaccine – part of the biggest inoculation programme the country has ever launched.
Dr Ayotunde Akinduro, a doctor for 15 years, came to the Ryan Medical Centre days before the beginning of the pandemic. Has the crisis and what he has witnessed changed him?
“The chaos that Covid-19 has brought to the world has definitely changed everyone and it is crazy how the planet has turned in a year. Twelve months ago, the primary emotion was fear. A lot of people were terrified. The virus remains deadly, but now the mood is a bit different.
“There’s a positive air of optimism now because we have a vaccine, something to fight back with. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but this is probably not going to end very quickly or soon. We will all have to work through it because it has to be done.
“There’s lots of lessons to be learned, mainly just to be happy and enjoy each other and appreciate the times and little blessings we have together.”
An army of volunteers was recruited by the Lancashire Volunteer Partnership and more than 1,000 are serving as NHS Covid Vaccination Volunteer Marshalls at sites in Lancashire and South Cumbria.
Dr David Waide, a GP at the Ryan Medical Centre, Bamber Bridge, said: “The volunteers are wonderful – I can’t praise them enough for their efforts. We knew when we began the planning and roll-out of the vaccination programme that we couldn’t do it alone and we would need the support of the community and the volunteers are incredible.
“It is a privilege and a very rewarding thing to do be part of this, but the volunteers, the patients and the staff have made it a joyful working experience.”
Ramona Ibrahim, Bridgedale Primary Care Network Business Manager, said: “We couldn’t have made this work without the volunteers – they are key members of the team.
“Each volunteer, many who have served at other centres, brings something special with them and there’s things that we’ve changed here (Ryan Medical Centre) because of their suggestions and ideas.
“They’ve also given the staff a different perspective on our community, because we’ve got volunteers coming in and giving up six hours on a Sunday to help. It is does say to us: ‘We are coming to volunteer and be with you and it has given the staff a sense of belonging. I’ve never seen such a collective effort in the NHS and the volunteers are wonderful.”
Neil Whalley, from Bamber Bridge, has clocked up 200 hours voluntary service. The retired postman said: “I’ve done shifts across Lancashire, including the Ryan Medical Centre, and my wife is also a volunteer. You definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. It has restored my faith in human nature to see the goodness in people.”
To sign up as a volunteer: www.healthierlsc.co.uk/covidvaccination/get-involved
The Bridgedale Primary Care Centre Network is the Ryan Medical Centre, Roselea Surgery (Bamber Bridge) and Riverside Medical Centre (Walton-le-Dale)
With special thanks to: Ann-Marie Goth (Practice manager, Roselea), Rachel Duckworth, Julie Southern, Adam Muzaffar, Jordan Leigh, Michael Finch and Charlotte Hargreaves NHS Chorley and South Ribble Comms.