EAMONN Sullivan has worked in war zones across the world, commanding the critical care unit in the original Bastion hospital – a series of tents on the battlefield of Afghanistan – as an Army reservist.
But nothing could prepare Eamonn, Director of Nursing at NHS Nightingale Hospital London, for the sight at the capital's former ExCel conference centre.
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Speaking to The Sun from the hospital, the 47-year-old said: "It’s quite an overwhelming sight really in terms of the scale, even though we’re nowhere near capacity.
“I’m here every day but every time it takes my breath away.
“I do get a little bit emotional when I get here, I think we all do. Then minutes later you just snap into it and crack on and do your best for the patients.”
The 4,000-bed hospital, built at a cost of millions, has recently faced mounting criticism about it treating an apparent handful of patients, with the Government now hinting temporary hospitals like it might be used to treat care home residents.
No official figures have been released about how many patients are inside the Docklands hospital.
Eamonn declines to give a figure but compares current patient numbers to the “size of a London teaching hospital in peacetime”.
And he is keen to stress that caring for fewer patients than they had anticipated is a positive thing.
Eamonn said: “Of course we would have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. There’s no doubt about it.
“But no rational person wants to have thousands of people ventilated in a hospital – nor a conference centre – but we would have done it. We have proven we can do it.
“So I think the legacy of this place, regardless of what happens, is really positive. We don’t see it as a negative.
“We’ve got ventilated Londoners in our facility and that’s our total focus – to save their lives. That’s what is important to us.”
London’s NHS Nightingale was built in just nine days in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
An intensive care nurse for two decades, Eamonn was working as the Chief Nurse at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London’s Chelsea before he was drafted into the project to convert the ExCel centre into a field hospital – in what has become an unprecedented joint operation between the NHS and the military.
He was asked to attend a planning meeting with military chiefs, NHS leaders and doctors at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital in mid-March.
Eamonn recalled: “We planned the hospital in a day.
“It was designed as a scaled up field hospital. We didn’t design this by committee. We listened to the military planners and we did it really quickly but really thoroughly as well.”
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Born at an RAF hospital in Germany where his father was stationed, both his grandfather and great grandfather served in the British Army.
He said: “It’s in my blood.”
Eamonn joined the Army Reserves in 2001, and has been deployed all over the world with his unit 256 Field Hospital – the city's only Army Medical Services Hospital.
He oversaw the intensive care units in field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he also helped to design and built the state-of-the-art hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province.
Yet, Nightingale has tested his skills and expertise to the limit, like no other operation.
He said: “The intensive care unit in Camp Bastion had five beds and obviously we were coming in here and putting in 2,000 beds in each of the halls.
“It’s certainly been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my career.
“I don’t think the NHS and military have ever worked like this before but it’s been fantastic. It’s something that’s got a huge amount of future.”
Soldiers, medics and engineers joined forces to turn the ExCeL conference centre into a huge hospital to treat patients from other intensive care units across London as a way to ease pressure during the crisis.
I’ve only really come across this type of culture in a military operation, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, where you’ve got doctors and nurses who have gone through specialist training and have been dropped into these war zones.
Split into more than 80 wards, containing 42 beds each, it is manned by an army of 16,000 staff in clinical and other roles.
Despite the often grim nature of their work, Eamonn said staff morale is high.
He said: “I’ve only really come across this type of culture in a military operation, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, where you’ve got doctors and nurses who have gone through specialist training and have been dropped into these war zones.
“That passion, community spirit and willingness to do the right thing is replicated here at Nightingale.”
Clinical staff have come from hospitals across London.
Eamonn said: "They hadn’t met each other a few weeks ago but you can feel the camaraderie.
"The job is extremely serious but there’s lighthearted moments and banter, which you see a lot in the military.
"It’s not disrespectful or taking away from the seriousness of the job but it’s giving people lighthearted moments. It's really important.
"The artwork does this a lot too. It takes people’s minds off what they have to go back in and do, which can be quite harrowing.”
Staff “buddy up” to ensure their personal protective equipment is on correctly.
Eamonn said: “We have a ‘donning and doffing station’ where staff put on their PPE. They take great care in looking after each other in those first few moments as they enter the ICU facility.”
This is something he compares to like “going into space”.
He said: “When you enter the facility through an air lock it’s to a different world, where everybody is in PPE.
“The size and scale is completely different to any intensive care unity I’ve worked on.
“The sight of all these patients, row after row, does make you sit up and take your breath away for a moment.
“The other thing that strikes you is that it’s very calm and very ordered.”
In true military form, staff are identified by stripes on their shoulders.
Eamonn explained: “A critical care nurse has got a yellow stripe, an airway doctor has got a red stripe, the matron has got two stripes, green is an intermediate doctor and white is a registered nurse.
“Everyone has got the same PPE and you can’t see their faces so we use this system to identify who is who. Everybody also has a name tag on their visor.”
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Eamonn said they were one of the first intensive care units to allow relatives to visit patients dying from coronavirus.
He said: “We said that from the beginning when we talked about our clinical model.
“Even if we’re at 4,000 beds we will do everything we can to have relatives by the bedside when patients are dying because we believe [it's] the right thing to do.”
There have been many touching and emotive moments where staff have gone the extra mile.
Eamonn said: “There are many stories of nurses reading poems written by family members to patients.
“They will write messages from the family for patients on boards behind their beds, along with what that person’s occupation is, how many children they have, what they like doing when they’re well.
“That helps personalise what can sometimes be an impersonal environment. It’s quite poignant.
“They will read these messages to the patients every day even though they’re asleep.”
Like many of the other staff, Eamonn stays in hotel accommodation offered by the hospital, meaning he's away from his wife, Yamini, 46, a speech therapist, and their children, Finn, 11, and nine-year-old Maya, for five days at a time.
But the selfless medic will continue to work at the hospital for as long as is necessary.
Eamonn said: “We’re so pleased we’re not currently needed. Londoners have done exactly what the government is advising – stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. London should be proud.
“Every Thursday, we’re not clapping for the NHS. We clap for Londoners because we’re so bloody glad they’re not in our unit.
“We want it to stay that way.”
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