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Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic

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How does it feel to confront a pandemic from the inside, one patient at a time? To bridge the gulf between a perilously unwell patient in quarantine and their distraught family outside? To be uncertain whether the protective equipment you wear fits the science or the size of the government stockpile? To strive your utmost to maintain your humanity even while barricaded beh How does it feel to confront a pandemic from the inside, one patient at a time? To bridge the gulf between a perilously unwell patient in quarantine and their distraught family outside? To be uncertain whether the protective equipment you wear fits the science or the size of the government stockpile? To strive your utmost to maintain your humanity even while barricaded behind visors and masks? Rachel is a palliative care doctor who looked after the most gravely unwell patients on the Covid-19 wards of her hospital. Amid the tensions, fatigue and rising death toll, she witnessed the courage of patients and NHS staff alike in conditions of unprecedented adversity. For all the bleakness and fear, she found that moments that could stop you in your tracks abounded. People who rose to their best, upon facing the worst, as a microbe laid waste to the population. Her new book, Breathtaking, is an unflinching insider's account of medicine in the time of coronavirus. Drawing on testimony from nursing, acute and intensive care colleagues - as well as, crucially, her patients - Clarke argue that this age of contagion has inspired a profound attentiveness to - and gratitude for - what matters most in life.


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How does it feel to confront a pandemic from the inside, one patient at a time? To bridge the gulf between a perilously unwell patient in quarantine and their distraught family outside? To be uncertain whether the protective equipment you wear fits the science or the size of the government stockpile? To strive your utmost to maintain your humanity even while barricaded beh How does it feel to confront a pandemic from the inside, one patient at a time? To bridge the gulf between a perilously unwell patient in quarantine and their distraught family outside? To be uncertain whether the protective equipment you wear fits the science or the size of the government stockpile? To strive your utmost to maintain your humanity even while barricaded behind visors and masks? Rachel is a palliative care doctor who looked after the most gravely unwell patients on the Covid-19 wards of her hospital. Amid the tensions, fatigue and rising death toll, she witnessed the courage of patients and NHS staff alike in conditions of unprecedented adversity. For all the bleakness and fear, she found that moments that could stop you in your tracks abounded. People who rose to their best, upon facing the worst, as a microbe laid waste to the population. Her new book, Breathtaking, is an unflinching insider's account of medicine in the time of coronavirus. Drawing on testimony from nursing, acute and intensive care colleagues - as well as, crucially, her patients - Clarke argue that this age of contagion has inspired a profound attentiveness to - and gratitude for - what matters most in life.

30 review for Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic

  1. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Clarke is a palliative care doctor based in Oxfordshire. She runs the Katharine House hospice but during the coronavirus pandemic has also been on active duty in the Oxford University Hospitals system. If you’re on social media you have likely come across some of her postings as she has been equally vocal in her praise of the NHS and her criticism of Boris Johnson’s faltering policies, which are often of the too little, too late variety. So I was eager to read her insider’s account of hospital t Clarke is a palliative care doctor based in Oxfordshire. She runs the Katharine House hospice but during the coronavirus pandemic has also been on active duty in the Oxford University Hospitals system. If you’re on social media you have likely come across some of her postings as she has been equally vocal in her praise of the NHS and her criticism of Boris Johnson’s faltering policies, which are often of the too little, too late variety. So I was eager to read her insider’s account of hospital treatment of the first wave of Covid in the UK, especially because her previous book, Dear Life, was one of my top two nonfiction releases of last year. The focus is on the first four full months of 2020, and the book originated in Clarke’s insomniac diaries and notes made when, even after manically busy shifts, she couldn’t rest her thoughts. Her pilot husband was flying to China even as increasingly alarming reports started coming in from Wuhan. She weaves in the latest news from China and Italy as well as what she hears from colleagues and disease experts in London. But the priority is given to stories: of the first doctor to die in China; of a Yorkshire ICU nurse’s father, who comes down with Covid and is on a ventilator in an Oxford hospital; and of her patients there and in the hospice. She is touched that so many are making great sacrifices, such as by deciding not to visit loved ones at the end of their lives so as not to risk spreading infection. A shortage of PPE remained a major issue, though Dominic Pimenta (whose Duty of Care was my first COVID-19 book) pulled through for her with an emergency shipment for the hospice – without which it would have had to close. Clarke marvels at the NHS’s ability to create an extra 33,000 beds within a month, but knows that this comes at a cost of other services, including cancer care, being stripped back or cancelled, meaning that many are not receiving the necessary treatment or are pushing inescapable problems further down the road. A comparison with Gavin Francis’s Intensive Care, published earlier in the month, is inevitable. Both doctors bounce between headlines and everyday stories, government advice and the situation on the ground. Both had their own Covid scare – Clarke didn’t meet the criteria to be tested so simply went back to work two weeks later, when she felt well enough – and had connections to regions that foreshadowed what would soon happen in the UK. Both give a sense of the scope of the crisis and both lament that, just when patients need compassion most, full PPE leads to their doctors feeling more detached from them than ever. However, within the same page count, Francis manages to convey more of the science behind the virus and its transmission, and helpfully explores the range of effects Covid is having for different groups. He also brings the story more up to the minute with a look back from November, whereas Clarke ends in April and follows up with an epilogue set in August. A book has to end somewhere, yes, but with this crisis ongoing, the later and more relevant its contents can be, the better. And in any book that involves a lot of death, mawkishness is a risk; Clarke so carefully avoided this in Dear Life, but sometimes succumbs here, with an insistence on how the pandemic has brought out the best in people (clapping and rainbows and all that). Her writing is as strong as ever, but I would have appreciated a sharper, more sombre look at the situation a few months later. Perhaps there will be a sequel. Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David Lowther

    I must be careful in evaluating BREATHTAKING. The words I choose to use should not include extremities of language and over the top evaluations such as those used by football commentators and Tory politicians. I would start by saying: This is a very good book indeed Everyone should read it. Doctor Clarke recounts her experiences during the first four months of the pandemic in the United Kingdom and her reaction to those experiences. She found it difficult to sleep such was her rage at the incompete I must be careful in evaluating BREATHTAKING. The words I choose to use should not include extremities of language and over the top evaluations such as those used by football commentators and Tory politicians. I would start by saying: This is a very good book indeed Everyone should read it. Doctor Clarke recounts her experiences during the first four months of the pandemic in the United Kingdom and her reaction to those experiences. She found it difficult to sleep such was her rage at the incompetence that she was experiencing day to day at work, all of this caused by a government failure to aggressively tackle the pandemic. Our NHS did a magnificent job in the most challenging of circumstances and this shines through the book. I shudder to think what she would make of the current situation with the numbers of deaths and cases rising days by day until the current lockdown began to take effect. Breathtaking is exceptionally written, using straightforward language and making point after point without repeat. Everyone should read it. David Lowther. Author of The Blue Pencil, Liberating Belsen, Two Families at War and The Summer of '39, all published by Sacristy Press.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kirsty Doole

    This is an extraordinary book laying bare the realities of what it was like within the NHS in the first wave of the pandemic. It should be compulsory reading for anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that our government have handled COVID-19 well, or that they've "done their best". Knowing that the situation only worsened after the book was finished is devastating. This is an extraordinary book laying bare the realities of what it was like within the NHS in the first wave of the pandemic. It should be compulsory reading for anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that our government have handled COVID-19 well, or that they've "done their best". Knowing that the situation only worsened after the book was finished is devastating.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Ferrari

    I really do not have the words to do justice to this extraordinary work. Rachel Clarke’s writing, which is always powerful, has never been more powerful or important. Every Covid denier and person pressing for an early release of lockdown should read this book. I give my grateful thanks to Rachel for writing this book and for her dedication to her patients throughout her career and especially during the crisis. I also give my grateful thanks to all medics and health and care staff who all know t I really do not have the words to do justice to this extraordinary work. Rachel Clarke’s writing, which is always powerful, has never been more powerful or important. Every Covid denier and person pressing for an early release of lockdown should read this book. I give my grateful thanks to Rachel for writing this book and for her dedication to her patients throughout her career and especially during the crisis. I also give my grateful thanks to all medics and health and care staff who all know the true horror of Covid and keep turning up at work to take care of those who succumb to this hideous disease. I hope cool heads will prevail and we steer a careful, slow path out of this disaster. Guided, by science and medicine not a desire to rush back to the pub or onto a plane!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Robert Peters-Gehrke

    This is a hard review to write. Such a well-meaning book by such a sympathetic person. Dealing movingly with people terribly suffering and other people helping these people selflessly. A book full of legitimate anger at the liars and clowns in office. But what a boring book. I am deeply sorry but it is boring and confusing, and I wanted to put it down before the end. Why? The main reason: The book doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it memoir, diary, report, essay, medical non-fiction, collage, n This is a hard review to write. Such a well-meaning book by such a sympathetic person. Dealing movingly with people terribly suffering and other people helping these people selflessly. A book full of legitimate anger at the liars and clowns in office. But what a boring book. I am deeply sorry but it is boring and confusing, and I wanted to put it down before the end. Why? The main reason: The book doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it memoir, diary, report, essay, medical non-fiction, collage, novel? Alas, it is everything at once and thus nothing. There is no structure, no focus. And repetitions en masse about how heroic the NHS staff was and is. Again and again you are told that literally everyone at the NHS is selfless, empathetic, brilliant, friendly, super talented, super duper. At the same time Clarke attacks Boris Johnson for using pathos and turning the NHS staff into heroes in his speeches... This criticism then is followed by another paragraph about heroic NHS staff... And some of these passages do not border on kitsch, they are kitsch. And kitsch never helps. I feel terrible to write this about such a well-meaning and probably necessary book: It would have been better it had not been written now. The author should have taken more time, should have waited, should have looked for a clear structure, a clear focus - and should have stopped telling us about all the superhuman people in the NHS. It is okay if people just work hard. And if some of them are lazy, cowardly, of bad character. I worked in a hospital. There were such people, you know...

  6. 5 out of 5

    Gaenor Bagley

    I felt I should read a book about front line experience in the NHS at the time of COVID. I had Rachel Clarke’s book on end of life care Dear Life: A Doctor's Story of Love and Loss on my to-read list, but decided to go for this one. Although it primarily recounts experiences of Rachel and other ICU staff during the first lock down, it felt important to be reminded of what it was like in the NHS as the virus approached and then took over. There are perhaps understandable hints of anger at lack o I felt I should read a book about front line experience in the NHS at the time of COVID. I had Rachel Clarke’s book on end of life care Dear Life: A Doctor's Story of Love and Loss on my to-read list, but decided to go for this one. Although it primarily recounts experiences of Rachel and other ICU staff during the first lock down, it felt important to be reminded of what it was like in the NHS as the virus approached and then took over. There are perhaps understandable hints of anger at lack of funding of the NHS, lack of social care policy and asking medical staff to risk their lives to care for patients with insufficient PPE. However this sentiment does not dominate. In the main, this is a lovely story of how basic human skills of listening and being present in the room really matter. The ICU staff, enveloped in PPE equipment, tending prone patients with no personal effects around them still make sure that no-one dies alone. A student who has no personal experience of death, volunteers to make the phone calls to relatives anxious for news about their loved ones each day. A keen crocheter crochets 60 hearts on her sixtieth birthday and donates them to her local ICU to spread a little love. They are used as tokens to link relatives and their loved ones - each have a heart, the patient with the heart on their pillow. The one thing that I hope that Covid has taught us all, is to value the things that really matter. This book shows that human acts of kindness and compassion are special and powerful tools to ease human suffering.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Geoffrey Kelley

    Like a moth drawn to candlelight, I find it hard to resist reading about our pandemic, even if I am experiencing severe COVID fatigue ( as is the rest of the world!) Dr Rachel Clarke is a British physician and former TV journalist. Her previous book, “ Dear Life”, tells the story of her evolution from journalism to med school to the ER and finally her conversion to palliative care in a hospice. In “ Breathtaking”, she relates the challenge of working during the first months of the pandemic outbr Like a moth drawn to candlelight, I find it hard to resist reading about our pandemic, even if I am experiencing severe COVID fatigue ( as is the rest of the world!) Dr Rachel Clarke is a British physician and former TV journalist. Her previous book, “ Dear Life”, tells the story of her evolution from journalism to med school to the ER and finally her conversion to palliative care in a hospice. In “ Breathtaking”, she relates the challenge of working during the first months of the pandemic outbreak, coping with the rush of gravely ill patients, the lack of preparation, the desperate shortage of protective equipment, and the incoherent and at times irresponsible messages from political leadership. All this is done in a simple and honest account, revealing the fatigue, the family tensions as her nine-year-old daughter asks why she is putting her family in harm’s way, and the dire working conditions. Two of the strengths of her book include:1) putting a face to a few of the “statistics”, those who died and those who recovered; and, 2) the devotion and courage of so many healthcare workers in the NHS who persevered despite cutbacks and equipment shortages. A compelling account of the work these brace individuals achieved.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Rafael

    The first months of the pandemic of 2020 by the pen of a doctor in the UK - humane perspectives behind the statistics, a peak behind the curtains of the NHS, instrumentally used (sacrificed even) by a criminal government. A narrative that shows how much a wealthy country can struggle under a mediocre leadership. Useful to contrast with a truly brutal experience of the pandemic in countries with no public health service or with those that the resources but also governments that cared about their The first months of the pandemic of 2020 by the pen of a doctor in the UK - humane perspectives behind the statistics, a peak behind the curtains of the NHS, instrumentally used (sacrificed even) by a criminal government. A narrative that shows how much a wealthy country can struggle under a mediocre leadership. Useful to contrast with a truly brutal experience of the pandemic in countries with no public health service or with those that the resources but also governments that cared about their citizens.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    A fine and important work, at its strongest when the writer describes her own experiences of working as a doctor in COVID wards. To me, it seems as close to a hell on earth as you can reach in modern day Britain, and a reminder that NHS workers deserve every ounce of respect that we can give them. The criticism of the Government covered in these pages is just as prescient, from someone who has seen directly the effects of their incompetence and corruption, and is rightly livid.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Holly Law

    Thank you for this insight Rachel. This book gave me a feeling of hope, pride and gratitude for all who work in health and social care, mixed with a calm, focused analysis of the consistent failures of the current government. I'd kind of forgotten how horrible and frightening the start of last year was, really interesting to reflect on our recent history that already feels like much longer ago. Thank you for this insight Rachel. This book gave me a feeling of hope, pride and gratitude for all who work in health and social care, mixed with a calm, focused analysis of the consistent failures of the current government. I'd kind of forgotten how horrible and frightening the start of last year was, really interesting to reflect on our recent history that already feels like much longer ago.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Yasmin Clancy

    BREATHTAKING! Yes this book is. A raw insight into life as a doctor caring for the sickest affected by covid 19. This book shares different patients accounts, the governments efforts (mistakes and all!), how staff dealt with lack of PPE and how people had to make do with items such as black bin bags!! A must read to any health care professional reader who is interested in covid 19, a pandemic, or medicine.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Roger Burne

    This is a really tough read about the terrible effects the first wave of Covid had on those working in theNHS. Ending in the summer it doesn’t even begin to describe the different and greater impact of the winter 2020/21 wave. Be prepared to weep.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Amy Marsh

    I love Rachel Clarke & always enjoy her books. However, I did struggle a bit with this one. I feel it may be too premature to write a book about a pandemic that is not over yet. I also found the book largely disjointed, I wasn't sure what it was trying to be? I love Rachel Clarke & always enjoy her books. However, I did struggle a bit with this one. I feel it may be too premature to write a book about a pandemic that is not over yet. I also found the book largely disjointed, I wasn't sure what it was trying to be?

  14. 4 out of 5

    Judith Bowen

    I cried, I swore, a good and moving book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Brilliant.... An angry, tender, moving and instructive book. Superlative and inspiring. It should be required reading for everyone, especially our politicians.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn MacKinnon

  17. 4 out of 5

    Hamaad

  18. 5 out of 5

    Amy Schmidt

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mark Findlater

  20. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mrs. Gaynor Taylor

  22. 5 out of 5

    Karin

  23. 4 out of 5

    k magee

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kristy Sayer-Jones

  25. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Zilz

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mathias

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ann Winsper

  29. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

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