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Nancy’s heroic recovery captures hearts of the nation

Former councillor wins 50/50 battle with coronavirus

14 May, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Nancy Jirira became one of the stars of Hospital

MILLIONS watched with a lump in their throat as a documentary charted a former councillor’s 50/50 courageous fight with the coronavirus at the Royal Free Hospital.

Nancy Jirira’s journey from the “brink of death to recovery” played a central role in BBC2’s Hospital on Monday evening. Although she only appeared as “Nancy”, she was immediately recognised as a community nurse from West Hampstead who served six years as a Liberal Democat councillor.

She remains a well-known character in the north west of the borough.

Many friends had been unaware that she had been through such turmoil until she appeared on their screens this week.

Still recovering at home, she was suddenly inundated with messages from friends and well-wishers, while strangers on social media said they had been rooting for her while the documentary was showing.

In an emotional climax to the programme, she was clapped out of the hospital by the doctors and nurses who are responding to the Covid-19 crisis at the hospital in Pond Street. She turned to them all and in a speech thanked them for their life-saving work, noting how many had come from other countries to staff the NHS.

“My colleagues, I am truly, truly grateful from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “I’ve worked for the NHS from 1970. I never, every day of my life, never had a day off sick. So you can imagine how angry I am that this stupid illness got me.”

She added: “I am indebted to a lot of you who’ve left your family so far away and are here to help us. “Please just hold on a little bit more. We shall overcome this. And when we do, the NHS hopefully will be better for it. I’m proud to be a nurse.”

Ms Jirira said she would “go out there to make testimony” about her experience. BBC cameras had spent three weeks inside the Royal Free wards from the beginning of the lockdown as part of the two-part special.

Speaking to the cameras from her bed, Ms Jirira had said: “I was not feeling well so I went to the Royal Free. Before you know it, I’d lost control of my life. That was scary for me. I had no idea of the parameters I was dealing with. I knew I was not in control.”

She was filmed recovering from the ventilator, sending her “first ever WhatsApp message” to her daughter from her hospital bed. It was a prayer that Ms Jirira described jokingly as a “bit over the top”. She was shown taking her first steps with a physiotherapist after three weeks of being unable to walk on her own.

Doctors said Ms Jirira had been on a journey from “almost the brink of death to recovery”, at one stage fearing she had a 50 per cent or even 60 per cent chance of dying from the virus. They said they had “learned a lot” from her case because she had been “the first known [Covid} patient in the country whose airway was restricted by laryngitis”.

Royal Free’s infectious diseases consultant Dr Sanjay Bhagani said: “Nancy went from casualty straight to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). We were saying look there is a 50/60 per cent chance of dying. That was our first example of something we hadn’t seen before with the viral infection, loads of swelling with the larynx. We learned a lot from looking after Nancy.”

The BBC documentary has been acclaimed for capturing the stress and pressure NHS staff have been under in the first three weeks of the lockdown.

It showed how supplies of oxygen had run critically low at the Pond Street hospital last month. Construction had taken place to fit new super-sized tanks into the ground near the Fleet Road entrance.

It also showed staff planning extra mortuary space in case they were hit by a surge of new cases and documented the death of a patient who spent four weeks with breathing difficulties before needing treatment in the intensive care unit.

Another story told how a nurse who worked at the Royal Free had fully recovered and the race to trial a new treatment drug called Remdisivir.

On the decision to allow cameras in, Emma Kearney, the Royal Free’s London group chief communications officer, said: “We, like every other part of the NHS and social care, are living through an extraordinary moment in our history and I felt it essential that this was captured.”


A force of nature, a Camden legend

“TRIVIAL fact of the night,” tweeted Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, as she watched the BBC’s documentary inside the Royal Free Hospital on Monday evening.

“In 2008, I lost my first council election to Nancy. You can see why. Camden legend.”

In truth, Ms Siddiq never had a chance. Nancy Jirira won by a country mile, with more than 50 per cent of the vote. In doing so, she became the first black woman to be elected to Camden Council.

And she quickly became a part of life at the Town Hall, sometimes unpredictable but always a determined force of nature.

At autumn conferences and council meetings, she would without fail bend my ear off about something that she felt had not been quite right in the paper.

It was quite fun really, certainly when she switched that animation towards opposing councillors. Everybody got a taste.

Re-elected in 2010 with Flick Rea and Russell Eagling

With that rivalry, also came affection.  People who stay the course, and remain on the scene even after they’ve lost their seat, end up with the respect of their peers.

So it didn’t matter what party you support or whether Nancy had heckled you in a corridor, when she appeared as a patient on this week’s programme, a flush of fear tickled the chest. That’s Nancy!

These documentaries are meant to tug hard on the heart strings, with their atmospheric music and deep narration. When you see nurses cry, you feel like crying too.

And there’s that uneasy feeling that, as the minutes past, we are waiting for the white text on a black screen at the end of the show to tell us someone hasn’t died. Thankfully, it didn’t get that far.

Instead we saw Nancy telling a nurse: “I walked in here, and I’m walking out.” We then saw her emotion as the fantastic staff clapped her out. Her speech was pitch perfect.

She was proud to be a nurse. Camden legend.

RICHARD OSLEY

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