THE consequences of not getting a Covid vaccine are all too obvious to Invercargill’s international intensive care nurse Jenny McGee.
Known around the world as “Nurse Jenny” after aiding United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson through his Covid infection, Ms McGee is now watching on as the unvaccinated fill intensive care units across the globe and hoping New Zealanders can avoid the same fate through vaccination.
Now working on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, the 37-year-old New Zealander says it is devastating to hear former sceptics ask for the vaccine as they fight for their life against the virus.
“One of the most heart-breaking things that I see out here and that I’ve also seen back in London is that patients will come in and say, give me the vaccine now, I’m ready for it’, and it’s too late,” she told the New Zealand Herald.
“When people are pleading for the vaccine at that point, it’s far too late, there’s nothing a vaccine would do for them.
“They’re horribly sick with Covid and there’s a lot of regret there.”
It takes a toll on nurses like Ms McGee, who pride themselves on offering the best possible care, even for those in the most dire of circumstances.
She said the Caribbean’s relatively low vaccination rate was partly due to widespread misinformation, which stoked fear in those believing in debunked side-effects.
Even some local doctors were exacerbating the problem, with a minority of GPs incorrectly advising patients against having a vaccine due to underlying health conditions people who are among the most at-risk from the virus.
In a similar way as in London, Ms McGee noted rumours of vaccine-caused infertility a claim which has been debunked time and again.
McGee said there was no doubt those paying the highest price were people who had refused a jab before catching Covid.
“The evidence is there, it’s unmistakable.
“You can’t argue that all these people have this condition or that condition, the common denominator here is that they’re unvaccinated.”
Ms McGee, formerly of St Thomas’ Hospital in London, left the UK after a whirlwind 12 months dominated by two waves of Covid-19, which at times overwhelmed England’s medical system.
She attracted international attention when she worked with Mr Johnson, before resigning from her role in March, frustrated by how the nursing workforce was being treated.
Now able to spend her downtime on glorious Caribbean beaches, Ms McGee said she was shocked to see how much the experience had affected her.
“I look at [images of myself from then] and I do look terrible, I look washed out, tired and exhausted and it’s been since stepping away from London that I’ve realised the toll January and February took on me.
“I was going to work and I was on autopilot because of the sheer awfulness of what we were seeing, you just had to block it out.”
As New Zealand struggles with a global shortage of ICU nurses, Ms McGee said it was vital managers ensured their staff did not burn out under the immense pressure Covid intensive care created.
It has been 18 months since the Invercargill woman was in New Zealand and she is desperate to return home to her brothers and Nelson-based parents.
Even with her partner by her side, Ms McGee admitted it was difficult without family support, processing events from becoming a champion to nurses globally and having her name mentioned in Parliament, to even buying her first car and becoming a homeowner.
“It’s not right to go through everything that we’ve been through in the last 18 months and not be able to share that with family and I think that’s the hardest part.”
She hoped high vaccination rates would enable New Zealand borders to open early next year, so the tens of thousands of overseas Kiwis could reunite with their whanau.
In the meantime, she encouraged anyone yet to get the jab to learn from what she had witnessed and to stay well informed.
“It is important that people really read up on the topic because it does have consequences on others if you don’t get vaccinated.”
Citing the UK’s efficient vaccine rollout, Ms McGee said it had given hope to those fearful we might never see a pandemic-free world again.
“We had a really brilliant summer… and it’s spurring on a lot of nurses and people in the medical field that there might be light at the end of the tunnel.
“Things are slowly getting back to normal and it’s all because of the vaccination programme.”