By Carmel Hayes, this article was published in the Laois Nationalist on 14th July 2020.
Cheerful, friendly and irrepressibly positive, hospital porter Stuart ‘Stu’ Williams is just what the doctor ordered, especially during the heightened anxiety of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As he wheels patients to and from the CT department at Portlaoise hospital, Stu tries to help them feel more at ease, with a good-natured chat to take their minds off their worries.
He says: “I always think that it could be one of my own family in that chair and I try to put myself in their place. Some have been cocooning at home and are very lonely, so they love having a chat.
“Most of the patients here are local, so we could talk about sport or whatever’s going on. I’m a real talker anyway, so we could chat about anything. I find it really rewarding looking after people and trying to help them feel a little bit better.”
At 38, Stu has spent half his life working at Portlaoise hospital. He was 19 when he joined the staff in June 2001 and spent the first 16 years in the emergency department, before moving to the CT unit. The best thing is that there are no more night shifts, after years working a gruelling 7pm - 6am.
“I finally got off the roundabout after all these years,” he laughs. “I’m on a regular 8am to 4.30pm day now and it’s a lot easier.”
At the start of a shift, Stu spends a full hour thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the CT department. Since Covid-19, the unit is also cleaned and disinfected again between each patient. By lunchtime, he has already looked after about 15 patients, bringing them to and from the wards and preparing them for their scans.
The average daily number of patients in the CT unit is 30 and there could be as many as 38 on a particularly busy day. Most patients who need scans are adults but occasionally there are children who need a CT scan, a time when Stu makes an extra effort to calm young fears on the way from the paediatric unit.
On an average day, he makes more than 60 journeys along the corridors of the busy hospital, meeting patients of all ages and personalities.
“I just say ‘I’m Stu, how’s it going?’ when I meet them,” he says. “I try to be friendly and have a bit of craic. I call the wheelchair a free taxi and try to put them at ease. A lot of patients would be nervous or scared about having a CT scan, especially if they’ve been waiting for a while, so it helps if you can build a rapport. During Covid-19 I often say to them, sure we’re in this together.”
Although a Portlaoise man through and through, Stu started out in Essex before his family moved to Laois when he was just two years old. He jokes: “We came over here because we liked the weather.”
Portlaoise has been home ever since and his house near the Killeshin Hotel on the Dublin Road is just minutes from the hospital.
When the pandemic hit, Stu’s reassuring nature became even more valuable, not only for patients but for fellow frontline staff. Patients were worried about the possibility of contracting the virus, while those already suffering from Covid-19 were in isolation wards or the intensive care unit. For everyone on the staff, from doctors and nurses to porters and cleaners, it was a challenging time of facing the unknown.
Stu recalls: “We were all nervous at first, particularly when patients were very ill with the virus but there was a great team effort and spirit. The first few days were nerve-wracking, as we were concentrating so much on doing the right thing but once we got used to it, we were fine. Once something becomes a routine, you are able to deal with it.”
He explains: “When collecting a patient for a scan, we would know their infection control rate in advance and we would all help each other out, such as holding open doors to reduce the number of surfaces touched on the way to and from the CT department. They are little things but they all add up. We all worked together and it became second nature.
“All patients have to wear masks now and 99% love having them because they feel more secure. For a few, especially the elderly, having to wear them is hard. All you can do is help them as best you can.”
Stu has what he calls “a love/hate relationship” with PPE, which initially felt claustrophobic but soon became routine in the strange new world of Covid-19.
He says: “It is so warm and it felt very uncomfortable at first but at the same time you’re glad to wear it, because you feel protected. We were so relieved when it all came in to the hospital. The guys in stores really minded us and went around making sure that we had the proper PPE. They took the fear away from us.”
When he’s not busy on his hospital rounds, Stu loves to travel and has done humanitarian aid work in Mozambique and Cambodia, as well as enjoying holidays all over the world from Cuba to Vietnam and Nepal. He has also done voluntary work with The Samaritans.
While the hospital has weathered the worst of the Covid-19 crisis, Stu and his frontline colleagues remain as vigilant as ever, as they hope that everyone will continue to be careful to prevent a dreaded second wave.
He says: “Things have returned to some normality but the virus is still out there and we all need to take care. We’ve come such a long way but it’s vital to keep it going.”