KI staff, students, and alumni tell of their lives during the pandemic

During spring 2020 all of our lives changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the stories that was sent in by staff, students, and alumni during this special period of time.

Bo C Bertilson: New routines at Huddinge Academic Health Centre

Doctor physical-distancing and examining the patient wearing PPE. Photo: Bo C Bertilson

New routines  are currently in place at Huddinge Academic Health Centre and the local infection node. Doctors examine patients while keeping a distance to prevent the spread of infection.

When dealing with suspected corona patients, we wear face masks, visors and plastic aprons and gloves.

The patients are received in a well-ventilated room that is disinfected and aired out between patients.

Departments are closed off to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Photo: Bo C Bertilson

We’ve done as Region Stockholm has ruled and closed off the section of the health centre where the infection unit is.

Patients who are generally unwell are referred to the local acute hospital, while those with upper respiratory tract symptoms such as a persistent cough and fever are booked into the infection node and come and go through a special doorway where they’re kept separated from other patients and through which only staff wearing PPE can pass.

Bo C Bertilson, coordinator at the Academic Health Centre in Huddinge/Flemingsberg.

We hold regular staff meetings to make sure we all get and understand the latest information from the Region Stockholm management and the Public Health Agency.

Even if we normally treat all samples as potentially infectious, it’s particularly important now that we protect ourselves and the staff. Lab workers now wear PPE with face masks, visors, plastic aprons and gloves – all to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Bo C Bertilson, coordinator at the Academic Health Centre in Huddinge/Flemingsberg and senior researcher at the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society

Cecilia Escher: We’re up at nine night-time standbys

Cecilia Escher, PhD and senior consultant at the department of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care, Karolinska University Hospital, Huddinge. Photo: Cecilia Escher

9 March. I’m woken by my phone at two in the morning. It’s the ICU duty nurse. The first corona patient in Stockholm in need of intensive care is being treated at S:t Göran’s Hospital and has to be transported to intensive care in Huddinge. I order a taxi and figure that it’s better to put on a pair of old trainers rather than my winter boots. Many hours later as I’m getting out of my protective gear to change into disposable clothes in the ICU, I can only guess what’s coming.

29 March. Night duty at ICU, 13 corona patients. We intubate three and work away. I have E and T as duty residents with me, but T has to accompany two patients to Solna and is away from 1 am until the morning. The following week is good. Daytime at the unit, on Wednesday we extubate two patients, and that gives us energy. Happy, skilled, willing and optimistic colleagues. I introduce four colleagues from private care providers. Hope that some of them can soon start working on standby. We’re up at nine night-time standbys, as opposed to the normal three. People are getting tired – managers, IC nurses and many others. Try to remain optimistic, after all, the work being done is fantastic. Surgery nurses learn to use suction tubes and take blood gasses. We learn to work with all kinds of ventilator and anaesthetic apparatus. But you can’t escape from the fact that having the courage and ability to provide intensive care demands a great deal of skill and knowhow.

Valborg, 30 April (a month later). Have some time off before going on standby, the third in a row this week. Frost, clear, cold, lovely morning. Blackbirds singing, the leaves are coming out so prettily. Work, rest, sleep, work. So far OK standby nights but a lot of judgement calls last shift. My younger colleagues fight on and stand much closer to the patients. A duty nurse in geriatrics keeps calling, it’s so horrible to be surrounded by dying patients. It’s super important to give them support.

There will be, afterwards, an immense tiredness after all we’ve done, and seen.

Dr Cecilia Escher, consultant, perioperative medicine and intensive care, Karolinska University Hospital, Huddinge

Veronica Lindström: I get to rest before my shift in the ambulance

Meetings with the specialist nursing programme’s supervisors and counsellors has been replaced with pigeon-hole communication. This is where I pick up documents and return them signed, adding cheerful little messages on Post-It notes. Gather information and try to help keep eleven specialist nursing programmes running. It’s just so different, the meetings and lectures at a distance, via Zoom, I miss sitting down having a coffee and a chat in real life. It all largely works but I miss my normal life.

Hospitals need every specialist nurse they can get these days, and so we have to keep our study programmes going. Specialisation coordinators, examiners and teachers are doing a fantastic job. When I send information to the management organisation about changes to the programmes, they back us up. I try to look beyond the feeling of unreality and have worked out new routines. At lunchtime I go to the greenhouse to check on the vegetables, I re-pot the tomato plants and give the peppers a little nourishment, and everything feels normal for a while, even if they’re not things I usually spend my lunch breaks doing.

I have meetings in the afternoon, there are more than normal as I don’t have to travel around, given that everything happens on Zoom. Then I get to rest before starting my shift in the ambulance as a specialist nurse. In the ambulance I meet people affected by the pandemic. I see the concern of their nearest and dearest who might not see them again after the trip to the hospital. I try to ease their suffering, that caused by their breathlessness, pain and feverish delirium. Every shift teaches me something new about CCOVID-19. I do what I can, but I still sometimes feel so inadequate. I talk to my colleague about it and draw support from the conversation, and that feels good.

Veronica Lindström, senior lecturer, docent of nursing, reg. nurse, NVS

Karin Ekström: I’ll never forget this month when spring came

Coffecup on a small table outdoors.

My expected fate, one Monday morning in March five weeks ago. I felt tired and something was up with my airways, just taking a few easy steps into the kitchen left me out of breath. Had I got this mysterious virus, is this the beginning of the end? Nothing felt normal any more, hard to accept. Me, who’s been blessed with a strong constitution and who hasn’t had flu for, what, 30 years. And now it was all isolation and acceptance. Got some kit delivered that made it occasionally possible link up and do some work for a bit. At times I felt much better and thought I was on the road to recovery, until it suddenly returned like a weight pressing against my chest. The symptoms came and went in waves, and I’m still unsure if I have, or have had, the virus.

This insatiable virus forbids us from touching anything, even our own faces. Especially when you come out of your isolation for a short walk. Don’t touch this, don’t touch that, our contactless civilisation is making huge leaps, our minds are being turned upside down.

I’ll never forget this month when the spring came and the sun shone almost every day, and when the clouds tried to darken the brought blue sky, the wind made sure to keep them away. From the window of my new apartment, the spring weather has put on a show with flowers and budding vegetation, a white fairytale of fruit trees and magnolia. The birds sing with joy and freedom, drowning out the now plane-less sky.

Everything comes to a stop except the apprehension, and the green ingress to the spring and early summer of Stockholm 2020 that elicits a desire to go camping, have a picnic or take a hike in the country. As if COVID-19 drew an invisible line across the country, a line of demarcation like the Maginot Line, no defence. Suddenly everything changed, I had to think of my routines: social distancing, no handshakes, meticulous hand hygiene with water, soap and hand sanitizer. An atmosphere of scarcity. What’s lacking isn’t toilet paper or food, it’s the preceding carelessness. By respecting an interval with our neighbour, we say a social distance.

I take my afternoon walk after having worked for a while at my computer. I usually take the same route around Gärdet, via Hundudden and along the narrow almost forgotten paths by Djurgårdsbrunn, I see a detour, another human being, I execute an arc to make sure to keep my possibly infected droplets out of range, and take my sidesteps with a determined smile under my face mask, as if to say that it’s not personal, just necessary, is this my new natural life?

Karin Ekström, president’s secretary

Susanne Guidetti: I heard a pling and nothing was the same again

Digital meeting for the research group HELD.

Travel restrictions meant the meeting had to be quickly re-planned and made digital for the HELD research group.

On Sunday 8 March, I was woken by a pling from my phone, and at that moment, everything changed. It was the Ugandan Ministry of Health announcing that all Swedes travelling into the country belonged to category 2 and would be kept under close observation, and that the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country could change this.

In the following week, I – a teacher and researcher at KI – was to travel to Austria to teach as part of the Erasmus programme. I thought it best to cancel the trip as it would mean landing in Stockholm on the Sunday to catch a flight the next day to Uganda with three of my colleagues in the HELD research group. 

My colleague in Krems, Austria, and I had to replan our teaching using Teams. I’d never heard of Teams at that point, but it’s amazing how quickly that changed! For two days, all our lectures and the group activities with presentations by 28 master’s students were done digitally. By the time they had finished on the Saturday afternoon I was dead beat. The switchover had demanded a great deal of concentration and given relatively little interaction. Pretty much all I’d seen on the screen was an array of colourful bubbles containing the students’ initials.

On Thursday 11 March, Sweden belonged to category 1 – which meant 14 days in quarantine, even without COVID-19 symptoms. More cancellation and adjustment. How would it work out? Our previous experiences were that online meetings weren’t always that successful. But we drew up a Zoom schedule with the different time zones, so that researchers from the UK clocked in at 7 am, Sweden at 8, and Uganda at 10. Despite a power cut in Entebbe, Uganda, we eventually got a randomised controlled study underway of a family-centred intervention that uses mobile-phone support. We created a logical model, planned our ethical application, touched base with out partners, registered a clinical trial wrote a study protocol.

In many respects, it was more structured than normal when working under “Africa time”. As my colleagues in east Africa say: In our country we own our time, in your country the time owns you.

Susanne Guidetti, Professor of Occupational Therapy and HELD research group leader.

Mai-Lis Hellénius: Don’t forget everyday exercise

Mai-Lis Hellénius. Photo: Ulf Sirborn

I’d never have believed just a few months ago that I’d be examining a PhD candidate via Zoom from my office at home. But all went very smoothly when Maria Waller defended her thesis at the Sahlgrenska Academy with great panache, bringing new knowledge of how preventative healthcare can be brought to everyone. Reaching vulnerable sectors of society will be even more important after the current crisis.

Young foundation doctors also put a huge amount of effort into this year’s annual meeting, which was held digitally and for which we recorded all our presentations in advance.

One of the special things about Zoom and Teams meetings with people in their home environments  is that you get a glimpse of “their real selves” – as their dogs, cats, children and grandchildren suddenly pop into view!

A big thanks to the KI management for your encouraging words to us all, and thanks to all my colleagues for your tireless work in this unprecedented and arduous situation. I’m grateful for so much these days and look with great respect up to everyone who keeps our healthcare service and our country running.

Finally, don’t forget to stretch your legs every half hour! All the evidence shows that we have underestimated everyday exercise. 

Mai-Lis Hellénius, professor of general medicine with a focus on cardiovascular prevention

Mats Lekander: Time once more for medical students’ disease?

Mats Lekander
Mats Lekander, feeling ill? Photo: Annika af Klercker

While on the coach from Arlanda airport I received a text message: one of the participants on the little conference I’d just attended had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Had he had time to infect the rest of us before self-isolating in his hotel room?

We other participants now turned our gaze inwards. The hunt for symptoms could now begin. But what is normal noise and what is symptom? Was it time once again for medical students’ disease, where we experience the symptoms we’re currently studying? And it didn’t help to be researching illness behaviour either. Slightly more laboured breathing, a colleague texted me, adding: maybe. Dopey, reported another, with a cryptic addendum: can walk 10  km but can’t jump. Tiredness, wrote a third. Hopelessly vague.  

After a time in a grey zone, it dawned on me that I was actually sick. Not just tired, allergic, obsessed or generally just middle-aged. I felt sick with a fuzzy kind of discomfort in the lower part of my body. A nameless discomfort? Lack of name notwithstanding, its message was clear: go and rest.

No sense of smell or taste, writes a colleague. I realise that anhedonia, the classic and tedious flipside of the infection, won’t cut it as an explanation for my paltry experiences of food and drink. I try smelling bottles and pots in the bathroom. They all smell the same. I take a shower and change my clothes. If I can’t distinguish between deodorant and toothpaste, I’ll have lost all trust in my nose.

All this knowledge. But did I manage to change my behaviour? I wouldn’t quite put it like that. My hand shot out automatically for a shake as I left the conference and remained hanging in the air until someone took pity on it. Minus points. It was easier once I’d actually fallen sick. I had no question about my quarantine. I worry about many of the consequences of the pandemic, but now that the symptoms have subsided I feel pleasure. My calendar is full of cancelled events that I don’t delete, only add the word “cancelled” to for effect. More sleep, less stress, more done. Every cloud, eh?

Mats Lekander, professor of health psychology

Svante Jerling: I had to choose between intensive care and getting material

Svante Jerling, semester 10 of the medical programme. Photo: Private

I’m on the 10th semester of the medical programme and in the past few weeks I’ve been helping to import material from China on behalf of the regional crisis group.

On 18 March I was asked by a former colleague in A&E: “We need emergency material for a lab. Would that be doable via China?” She asked me this because I was once an entrepreneur in China, although it wasn’t anything to do with medical material. Three weeks later the first delivery appears in the lab’s goods reception area. 5,000 test kits with swabs and tubes filled with a liquid that will stabilise the RNA from virus so that it can be run through PCR (polymerase chain reaction), a method that makes it possible to detect and isolate viruses. Another 15,000 kits arrive the following day and a further 40,000 are waiting in a warehouse in Guangzhou.

For me, this wasn’t actually about whether or not I’d be able to get hold of the material, it was about the choice between working extra in intensive care and prioritising testing material. I opted for the latter. There are hundreds of great students of nursing and medicine who can work in intensive care, but finding factories in China is rather more niche.

The following days were hectic. China wakes up six hours before Sweden, so early mornings with updates about what had happened there during the morning became routine. Former colleagues in China who’d never even considered medical material, now had to travel around visiting factories to make sure everything was in order. Finally Karolinska University Library placed an initial order for 100,000 test swabs. Questions needed answering and it was all very much based on trust. I think that in times like this it’s especially important that we can trust each other, and try novel methods and means to get the job done. In this case it was worth it. So far 20,000 test kits have been delivered and hundreds of thousands are on their way.

Svante Jerling, medical student

Annika Botes: How do you do your digital teaching? Tell me!

Annika Botes, clinical supervisor, CNS
Annika Botes, clinical supervisor CNS. Photo: Private, Annika Botes

At the moment I’m sitting here answering students’ questions while they’re doing a test in the form of a quiz. I feel there’s a need for consensus around the use of digital tests, and would look forward to an inspiring discussion on different ways of doing them and to being able to share my experiences, good as well as not so good, with others. So I’d like to see more general discussion in this forum and think that it’d be rewarding. I’d love to hear from you!

Annika Botes, clinical supervisor, CNS

Margareta Bratt Carlström: From analogue to digital colleague...

Margareta Bratt Carlström, Human Resources specialist
Margareta Bratt Carlström, HR specialist at the HR Office. Photo: Gustav Mårtensson

What I love most about my work at KI is meeting face to face with managers, staff and students. Now after three weeks working from home I’m far from professional – but half-decent at holding meetings via Teams and Zoom. I’ve even done a couple of courses in cyberspace and they went well thanks to the patience and positive attitude of the participants (a techno-freak I’ll never be). Work environment rules have a low hip-factor but maybe going digital will make them cool...

Joking aside, my own work at the moment involves contributing to and supporting the risk assessments that are being done to minimise the risk of infection in different kinds of activity at KI. It’s in difficult situations that we really need to prove that we have, or can quickly set up, the work environments and safe methods required.

I have great respect for everyone working tirelessly and professionally to make sure that we and the world exit this pandemic relatively unscathed. I also think a lot about how we as a society will operate afterwards. And I can’t wait to meet IRL – even if a digital chat over a coffee is just fine too.

Margareta Bratt Carlström, HR specialist at the HR Office, UF

Marie-Louise Bjerdahl: Leftover PPE gets sent to the hospital

Marie-Louise Bjerdahl, dental nurse at the academic clinic for the prevention and treatment of dental disease. Photo: Yolanda Gaete

Normally I assist semester 4 or 6 dentistry students at the academic clinic for the prevention and treatment of dental disease, where they learn to treat caries and periodontal diseases and to do root canal treatments. What I mainly do is make sure that they follow the basic hygiene routines and handle their instruments and materials correctly.

But on 18 Match the heads of the Department of Dental Medicine and academic dentistry decided to reduce the work being done at our clinics to limit the spread of coronavirus. Since then the only students left at the clinics are those coming up to their degrees.

5,000 masks, 30,000 gloves, 5,000 plastic aprons, 50 litres of surface disinfectant and 175 long-sleeved gowns have been sent to Södertälje Hospital. Photo: Katarina Gustavsson

Those of us who don’t have any students to assist now have to make preparations for future student work instead. The other day, some colleagues and I were given a different kind of task to do – to collect all the leftover PPE for delivery to hospitals. 5,000 masks, 30,000 gloves, 5,000 plastic aprons, 50 litres of surface disinfectant and 175 long-sleeved gowns, all got sent to Södertälje Hospital at Region Stockholm’s request. It was a lovely feeling to do some good in all that’s going on with the virus pandemic.

Otherwise, the adaptations we’ve had to do have felt unreal and a little sad. The rooms that should be buzzing with activity are empty. But if we’re to see the silver lining in all this, it’ll hammer home the importance of hygiene routines, something that we dental nurses always stick to.

Marie-Louise Bjerdahl, dental nurse at the academic clinic for the prevention and  treatment of dental disease.

Ann Langius-Eklöf: We have a vital role normally – and especially now

Meeting at the nursing section of the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society in April 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital meeting is being led by section head Ann Langius-Eklöf. Photo: Ann Langius-Eklöf

The nursing section of the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society (NVS) arranges most of the courses on the nursing and specialist nursing programmes. We have, in round figures, 1,300 students a year in circulation. Even under normal circumstances we play a serious and important societal role – namely to secure a steady supply of skilled nurses – but this is especially the case now!

We’re currently gathering together all the section staff once a week to go through information, to check and double-check things with each other and discuss. The photo is from one such meeting. I led the meeting from home last week and 70 of our 80 members of staff turned up.

Since we at the section have long experience of working with digital education and teaching, the concept of a digital forum is familiar to us. What I do miss, however, is being at KI and meeting people like we used to, in the corridor or by popping into each other’s office.

I’m so grateful to all my colleagues and to KI and the NVS management for thinking outside the box, and for their clear, transparent and prompt information and for being easily accessible at this very special time. And – I’m grateful above all to all our patient students.

Ann Langius-Eklöf, professor of nursing and head of section at NVS