Like many people over the last year, Sophie Exton-Woodford wanted to do her bit to help the NHS during the pandemic. Which is why she says she feels lucky to have a career that enabled her to get right to the heart of where help was needed most: volunteering on the Intensive Care Unit of a Covid ward at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth.
When asked if she’d like to join other Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service personnel volunteering to support the NHS, the Portchester retained and Fareham wholetime firefighter jumped at the chance.
“It felt like a privilege, to have a job that allowed me to go and help in this way,” she says. “My wife, Kerry, is a deputy sister in Intensive Care and will often come home chatting about things. I love my job as a firefighter and I don’t particularly like hospitals, but I’ve seen what the last year has been like for the NHS, so when Hampshire FRS asked for volunteers, my moral compass took over. And it was just a privilege to be able to be there.”
Sophie joined other firefighters to form a team supporting with proning Covid patients in Intensive Care, offering assistance in the process of carefully turning them from their back onto their front to help with their breathing. They completed a manual handling course and underwent rigorous health screenings and infection control and PPE training, before spending five weeks in hospital.
“We were working alongside an incredible team of NHS staff, doing whatever they told us to in order to help,” she says. “It was tough psychologically at times, and there were a few tears. But there were also incredible moments of positivity as well. In my last week we helped move someone off the Intensive Care Unit to a different ward and they thanked us for helping them. This is someone who just a few weeks earlier had been really unwell and unable to talk. That was incredibly rewarding. And it was just a pleasure to work alongside the hospital staff; they were all so pleased to have us there and were really interested in our roles in the fire service as well.”
“It was just a pleasure to work alongside the hospital staff; they were all so pleased to have us there.”
For Sophie, the experience of providing care to people in need at such a different pace to normal was both humbling and eye-opening.
“As firefighters, so much of what we do is fast time, safety critical, dealing with the immediate aftereffects of a road traffic collision or putting out fires,” she says. “Then in hospital everything is slow and precise, it was good to see the other end of the care chain. But the similarities are there between all the blue light services. Whether it’s hospital staff, police, ambulance or in the fire service, you’re there to look after someone in their time of need.”
Wanting to thank the NHS staff for hosting them, Sophie – who studied illustration at university before pursuing a fire career – decided to create something to commemorate their time together, and designed an illustration of firefighters showing their support to the NHS.
“On our first day there, in true fire service fashion, we took cakes along with us, but I wanted to do something just from me,” says Sophie. “Seeing what Kerry has gone through over the last year and then seeing first hand the staff experiencing the same, I just thought, there’s not much I can offer, but I’m not bad at drawing. So I sketched out a few ideas, and that’s the one that came to fruition.”
Alongside the drawing, Sophie wrote the words ‘We’ve got your back’, and she had it framed to present to the ward on her last day.
“The combined efforts of the blue light community over the last year just goes to show that when it comes to crunch time, we really do have each other’s backs,” she says. “Volunteering in this way isn’t for everyone, but for me, I wanted to do it because I was able to. What a privileged position to be in: if I was on a different career path, I wouldn’t have this incredible opportunity, but my role with the fire service enabled me to do something.”
Since posting her illustration on Twitter, Sophie has been pleasantly surprised by the response it has received, and is now exploring being able to sell prints with profits coming to The Fire Fighters Charity and NHS charities.
“I’ve never used your services, but I know of people who have and always sing your praises,” she says. “I’ve done fundraising in the past, taken part in car washes and even run a marathon. I’ve wanted to be in the fire service since I was a little kid, so it feels nice to be exploring raising money for the Charity with something I created to commemorate the combined efforts of the blue light community during the pandemic. It does feel special to be able to say I was there; I did my bit.”