As a final year PhD student working on tuberculosis, Elliott Bernard has been doing what he can from home over the last few weeks. Alongside writing up his thesis, Elliott has continued to volunteer for St John Ambulance, where his workload has ramped up quite a bit. Elliott tells us more about how St John Ambulance are currently supporting the NHS and what it's like to be a volunteer right now.
I am a final year PhD student in Max Gutierrez's lab working on tuberculosis. Specifically, for my PhD project, I have set up a new human macrophage model to study the dynamics of a process called autophagy during Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection. I am investigating how this process sometimes fails to work properly to capture and kill the bacteria. This means I spend much of my normal week in tissue culture or in the containment level 3 labs on the fourth floor.
I'm unable to come into the lab at the moment, so I’ve been doing what I can from home. I've spent time revising a paper, analysing data and writing my thesis, as I'm due to submit later this year. So overall, I've been able to remain productive during this time, although I'm really looking forward to coming back to finish off the last few experiments to tie up some loose ends in my thesis.
Alongside my PhD, I've been volunteering with St John Ambulance (SJA), which I started doing seven and a half years ago. I joined the charity as a first aider during my undergraduate degree in Bristol and progressed to qualify as emergency ambulance crew and a cycle responder. I'd always had an interest in medicine and first aid and had witnessed a few incidents prior to joining – I wanted to be able to step in and help, but didn't have the skills and confidence to do so. I saw a stand at Fresher's Fayre providing the opportunity to join SJA through a society and signed up there and then.
“We've transformed as a charity to support the NHS in lots of different ways, for example assisting ambulance services with 999 response work and with volunteers in hospitals assisting the nursing staff.”
Normally I volunteer once a week, usually at weekends although it can be a couple of times a week during the summer when we are busier. As a volunteer, I normally form part of the team providing medical cover at public events such as football and rugby stadia, London Marathon and concerts. I can usually be found on the back of an ambulance or as a pair working on our specially adapted mountain bikes responding to patients in areas where it's hard for our ambulances to access.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, I’m continuing to volunteer with SJA but it's quite different from our normal work. We've transformed as a charity to support the NHS in lots of different ways, for example assisting ambulance services with 999 response work and with volunteers in hospitals assisting the nursing staff. Personally, I’ve been volunteering as ambulance crew, providing frontline ambulances to support the London Ambulance Service with responding to 999 calls. This can be anything from relatively minor medical incidents to cardiac arrests, and of course a few cases of COVID-19. I’ve also been trained to support the NHS Nightingale hospital at the ExCeL should the need arise. This involves helping to care for the patients as they recover, as well as providing first aid for the staff on-site should they get ill or injured. I am very grateful to Max who has been supportive and enabled me to work flexibly so I can get out and help when needed.
“There’s been a real feel of camaraderie amongst us, more so than normal, with everyone working together and putting in a lot of hard work to enable us to support the NHS as much as possible.”
Many of my friends are also SJA volunteers and have all stepped up to do as much as they can. There’s been a real feel of camaraderie amongst us, more so than normal, with everyone working together and putting in a lot of hard work to enable us to support the NHS as much as possible. Whilst it has been a challenging experience so far, it has been an opportunity for us all to learn so much and put our slightly unusual hobby to good use. At present there’s a sense of optimism and hope that we’re turning a corner, things are looking a bit better and we can start getting back to some sort of normality soon; so long as people keep up the social distancing and self-isolation measures that are in place.
It's been a strange, and at times scary, few weeks but people's ability to adapt and cope has been inspiring. Overall, I've been really impressed by the country's response; everyone seems to have gotten on with the lockdown and following the government's advice as best they can. It feels like we're finally getting on top of it and can be back at the Crick soon. I'm really proud of the work a lot of the lab have been doing with the COVID-19 testing at the Crick and it's been great to contribute my bit to the response.