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Helen Riley is the CFO of Google X.

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The Mancunians who were ready for Covid-19 when hardly anyone knew what to do

Jun 20, 2021

The Mancunians who were ready for the Covid-19 pandemic when the rest of the world barely knew what to do ON THE COVID FRONTLINE: During the first few weeks of the pandemic, the team inside the infectious diseases unit at North Manchester Hospital were leading our region's response. Sophie Halle-Richards reports Don't miss a thing by getting the day's biggest stories sent direct to your inbox Invalid EmailSomething went wrong, please try again later. Click here When you subscribe we will use the information you provide to send you these newsletters. Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Notice. Thank you for subscribingWe have more newsletters Show me See our privacy notice Helen Riley still recalls the first time she heard about the emergence of a deadly new virus called Covid-19. Working on an infectious diseases unit meant that when the first new bulletins appeared, she took a much greater interest in the events unfolding in China than the rest of her family. As matron on the unit at North Manchester Hospital, Helen, 38, had been well versed in preparing for a range of serious illnesses including tropical infections, HIV, viral hepatitis, and general infectious diseases. And neither did the rest of her team. But being the only infectious diseases unit in the whole of Greater Manchester comes with immense responsibility. Read More And that meant that when the first cases of coronavirus reached the North West in early 2020, Helen and her colleagues were called on by health professionals from across the region for their expertise. It's hard to remember a time before every hospital across the conurbation wasn't filled with coronavirus patients, but during the first few weeks of the pandemic, the small unit were leading our region's response. Matron Helen Riley at the doorway to a room on the infectious diseases ward (Image: Joel Goodman) "It's all a bit of a haze, but I recall watching the news and thinking that's really interesting," Helen said, speaking of the moment she heard of the virus emerging across the globe. "Obviously it was probably a lot more interesting to me than anyone else so I remember following it really closely." The infectious diseases unit began making preparations for Covid-19 to hit the UK in around January 2020 - at which stage, the virus was still very much isolated to the Wuhan province in China. "We were having conversations and then I do recall being called to a meeting with our executive team in mid January and it was kind of 'so what are our plans,'" Helen said. Due to their understanding of Ebola and other tropical diseases, the unit at North Manchester already had a specific range of procedures for contagious virus' such as Covid-19 ready at their disposal. Infectious diseases consultant, Leann Johnson, 45, has worked on the unit since 2008, and has a wealth of experience working with illnesses that are potentially highly contagious. "In normal times when people travel routinely, most weeks we would be seeing people who have been to regions with a potential risk of these infections and assessing them. You have to have very strict procedures and protocols around how you do that. Infectious diseases consultant and clinical director Leann Johnson (Image: Joel Goodman) "There was the West Africa outbreak in 2014 where in many ways those systems were put to test because there was a significant risk of Ebola spreading beyond West Africa. "That in a way made us make sure we were ready for times like this. We made sure our processes were all in place to make sure we could manage a situation like this." But even with the immense planning that is undertaken by the unit, nothing could have prepared the team for the gruelling, and at times unrelenting pressures they would be faced with over the next year and a half. "Even back then I think we completely underestimated the situation," said Helen. "Nobody could have foreseen the twelve months ahead of us." Most normal services including elective surgery came to a grinding halt, as North Manchester became the first screening centre in the region for people with symptoms of Covid-19. The hospital received and treated the first coronavirus patient in the country, outside of the dedicated isolation units at hospitals such as Liverpool, Sheffield and London. It was an anxious time for the infectious diseases unit, who found themselves under the spotlight, having to put all their plans to the test, in a time where very little was known about the virus. Dr Nuwan Dahanayake works at a computer terminal on the ward in front of a mural of Manchester drawn by a friend of a member of staff (Image: Joel Goodman) Infectious diseases consultant, Andy Ustianowski was on call the weekend the first patient arrived, and remembers receiving the phone call vividly. "I remember the first patient because I was on call. They told me I had a positive coronavirus patient," he said. "They ended up not being severe but it was still the unknown really. We didn't know what treatments to give, when it was safe to let people leave the hospital, we didn't really know very much at the beginning." Very quickly, a ward which had previously been used to care for people living with HIV, those with Hepatitis, or general infections, became entirely overtaken with Covid cases. As the unit attempted to get a handle on the situation, staff were receiving daily phone calls from anxious colleagues at other hospitals across Greater Manchester, asking for infection prevention advice. Up until the pandemic, Consultant and Deputy Medical Director for North Manchester, Katherine Ajdukiewicz, 47, would primarily care for people living with HIV . "Going into the pandemic, things changed very quickly. The whole way we worked changed rapidly and in terms of out-patients - it went almost completely virtual overnight," she said. Consultant in infectious diseases Katherine Ajdukiewicz (Image: Joel Goodman) "We utilised the use of an infectious diseases consultant who had retired who came back to help, and our specialist nurses were mobilised and put on the Covid unit. "It ramped up very quickly. Initially there was one ward, then two, and so on." At the beginning of the pandemic, any patients with coronavirus in the region would be taken to the infectious diseases ward at North Manchester Hospital. Within a short number of weeks, it became apparent that other hospitals across the region would need to brace themselves for an influx of Covid patients. Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, Greater Manchester's hospitals have seen three so-called 'waves' of the virus, tragically leading to the loss of thousands of lives. But thanks to the incredible commitment and sheer determination shown by NHS professionals, thousands of people who have been treated in our region's hospitals have fully recovered. There is no doubt that the diligence shown by the team at North Manchester in the early stages of the pandemic, helped prevent the region's entire health service from becoming overwhelmed - at a time of such immense pressure. Leann Doyle speaks to coronavirus patient Katie Doyle, 18 (Image: Joel Goodman) "In the first wave it was often patients who were older or who had other co-morbidities going on with them," Katherine said, speaking of the patients she has treated over the past 18 months. "It was awful but in a way what was even worse was in subsequent surges, and even now, we are seeing young people who are normally fit and well getting Covid and becoming very sick or going to critical care and not making it. "With many infectious diseases we treat, the patients almost always get better. But with Covid, especially in the early days, there was nothing we could do except give oxygen. "It was really emotionally draining and psychologically and physically because the hours were really long." The situation has now come full circle for the infectious diseases unit, who are now the only ward at North Manchester Hospital with coronavirus patients - excluding critical care. But sadly, patients are still continuing to come through the doors, with the numbers 'trickling up,' as infection rates across Greater Manchester and the North West continue to rise well above other parts of the country. "We are seeing largely unvaccinated individuals, mostly younger, fit and well coming in. Aged between around 20 and 40," said Katherine. "Some have been offered the vaccine but some are just on the cusp of being offered." Dr Katherine Ajdukiewicz talks to patient Brian Garnett, 55, from Harpurhey in a room on the ward (Image: Joel Goodman) The youngest patients seen by the unit include 18-year-old Katie Doyle, who was admitted to A+E last week after passing out at home, having developed symptoms of coronavirus. She tested positive and was moved on to the infectious diseases ward last Tuesday (8 June). "I have had both vaccines already and the consultants told me if I hadn't I most likely would have needed oxygen," Katie said, as she now recovers from her home in Crumpsall after spending two days on the ward. "I have asthma but other than that I am fit and well. "All the staff were brilliant. There were a couple of nurses that were really nice and just made conversation with me and made me feel comfortable when they were doing my blood pressure and things like that." The uptake of the vaccine has been low in some communities in Greater Manchester, and is an issue the infectious diseases team attempts to tackle head on with patients. "This is a hugely important part of us overcoming the disease," said Katherine. The youngest patients seen by the unit include 18-year-old Katie Doyle, who was admitted to A+E last week (Image: Joel Goodman) "There are individuals who think there are microchips from the government going in and I won’t be able to convince that person, but for others my approach is to explain that there has been a huge amount of research done." And much of that research was carried out by North Manchester Hospital. Andy Ustianowski, 52, runs the research unit at the hospital, and it is thanks to some of the studies carried out by his team, that effective vaccines have been rolled out across the country. The hospital has recruited just over 1,500 people to various treatment and vaccine studies during the course of the pandemic, and during its height, was in the top 15 hospitals nationally for the number of studies undertaken. The research team at North Manchester led treatment studies on the drugs Remdesivir and Tocilizumab, which have both been used to successfully treat coronavirus patients. North Manchester Hospital was also the lead for one of the Covid-19 vaccination programmes, which led to the licensing of some jabs including AstraZeneca and Janssen. Andy and his team are also working on two new exciting studies, which look at the way monoclonal antibodies could be used to prevent the virus spreading. North Manchester were the lead site on a number of vaccine trials (Image: PA) "It’s an injection into the muscle of antibodies targeted against the virus," Andy said. "We don’t know the data but they would either be given to prevent Covid generally but also specifically a separate study was looking at giving people the injection if they were a contact of someone with coronavirus. "If we think about vaccines - there are some people who can’t have them or they might not work well because their immune system isn’t good. "So having this injection which is giving people antibodies against the virus is a way of protecting the remaining bit of the population. "The other thing about vaccines is they take a little bit of time before they make you immune. That might be two weeks or so. "These jabs work almost instantaneously. You don’t have to wait for the immune response; the protection is almost immediately." The results of the study have not yet been published, but if the data is positive, it could mean the UK is equipped with yet another way of minimising the spread of coronavirus in the community. The vaccine rollout has been extremely successful, and is a credit to selfless NHS professionals such as Andy and his team, who have spent months, and now even years, working long hours to get us here. And the work for the research unit doesn't stop there. Now the focus of their research will move to ways people's immunity to the virus can be boosted in the autumn and winter, and how they can change the vaccines to work against new variants. A colourfully illustrated white board briefing on mental health and wellbeing , on a corridor on the ward (Image: Joel Goodman) "I have never worked so hard and I've never been so tired but it's been rewarding to see the difference the vaccine has made in a relatively short period of time," Andy said. "It's been hugely traumatic but as an infectious diseases doctor it's what we are trained to do. "I think we've learnt a lot over the last year and a bit and I think we will be in a better situation for another pandemic as long as the lessons now are learnt. "What would be nice is to try and convert some of that learning to other diseases whether that’s infections or other diseases." Although summer has barely arrived, the infectious diseases unit at North Manchester are already thinking ahead to the winter. "I would love to have a crystal ball. It's so difficult to anticipate what is around the corner," said Katherine. "The kind of things that go through my head are; are we going to get another surge? Could that be related to people's response to the vaccine becoming diminished. "During the pandemic, attendance at emergency went down significantly. Now we are seeing a huge increase in the number of individuals presenting. "That’s not just at this hospital it’s happening across Greater Manchester. Helen Riley reads cards placed on a railing along a corridor on the infectious diseases ward (Image: Joel Goodman) "As we move into the recovery phase, there are individuals who need hip replacements and lumps that need to be biopsied. But already we are under a lot of pressure." As the country begins to resume to something resembling normal life, for the staff on the infectious diseases unit, the fight against coronavirus is still a long way from being over. And whilst many of the team have absorbed the pressures faced by our NHS over the last 18 months, for their families the emotional toll of losing their loved ones to the frontline is starting to become apparent. "I think I was able to reassure my husband and my children but I don't think I had the understanding of the impact it would have on my parents," Helen said. "Behind closed doors although they were extremely supportive and proud of me, it's only recently as things have calmed down that you realised how worried people would have been about you. "Your friends... family, you don't take that in; you are just doing what you need to do for the patients. "It’s not gone away for us. I know a lot of people feel they have got back to some normality but it has not gone away for us. "It won’t be going away for us for a long time." Read More

Helen Riley Investments

1 Investments

Helen Riley has made 1 investments. Their latest investment was in Bitwise Asset Management as part of their Series B on June 6, 2021.

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