Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Challenging, difficult and sometimes overwhelming in its content, this book was written by an NHS doctor working in the year of the pandemic.

Rachel Clarke is a young doctor whose role, prior to Covid 19, was to tend patients facing their battle with terminal illness in a hospice in Oxfordshire.

There are actual patient stories of the frightening, desperate and unchartered times that gripped the UK and its NHS last year.  There is a farmer with SCC form of skin cancer. Excising his facial tumours has left him with ghastly disfigurement, losing an eye to expose its bony socket, and permanently making his teeth and tongue visible.  His pain, his isolation in the hospice does not exclude small pleasures. He shares the sight of a woodpecker outside his window with Rachel, and later, she is moved by his unselfish thoughts for others.

The nurses and doctors constantly risk their lives as the treatment they administer involves extremely close contact with ICU patients.  Protective gear does not guarantee their safety, especially when they have to attempt intubation which must be administered with lightning speed.

Exhaustion, fear and deep concern rule the medical staff’s days. The dark shadow that always lurks is that this is a new disease and they know so little.

Their battle is near impossible as they face appalling odds.

In addition, the Conservative government under Boris Johnson fails to steer the reaction to the pandemic according to strategies recommended by the scientific expert community which many recognise as being amongst the world’s finest.  The basic imperatives were disregarded. Testing, hygiene, distancing and isolation/quarantine and mask wearing were not rigidly followed until months after the virus attacked the UK.

It was slow to pursue lockdown measures. Johnson encouraged dining out while affected numbers continued to rise. Travel restrictions weren’t introduced and people crowded on beaches and in parks. Christmas shopping was almost normal.

Rachel Clarke relates previous events such as the Grenfell fire, when the NHS attracted enormous praise for its response. The scale of this new Corona virus and its rapid mutations is vastly beyond any prior catastrophe which confronted the NHS, since its inception post the Second World War.

This pandemic is the first nationwide life-threatening incident in history.

So many heart-rending cases make it difficult to comprehend how doctors and nurses survived the daily ordeal.  One of the cruelest rules was the ban on visitors, even close relatives. If, on rare occasions, a visit was granted, it was distorted by having to don PPE, which hides expression.

Dr. Clarke lists the varying symptoms of the disease, from mild and flu-like to massive organ failure.  Stress hammers marriages, and haunts children who worry for the fate of parents who are health workers.

Breathtaking is also a chronicle of the generosity and the selfless spirits of the millions who value their NHS.

Sandra and her 60 crocheted hearts, cafes giving free coffees to health workers – there is a nationwide eruption of improvised altruism by people of all ages, even children. It startles and thrills the exhausted staff.

Whereas the gloom and horror of the progress of the pandemic mostly dominates the book, it is relieved by these bursts of kindness and appreciation.  No reader could fail to be moved, even awe-struck by Rachel Clarke’s account. It is honest, detailed, unflinching.

Her attitude to life drastically alters. She, after enduring these long, dark months, will never take anything for granted again.

It is an important and valuable personal document. However, be warned. It is not an easy read.

Breathtaking

[2021]

by Rachel Clarke

Hatchette

ISBN 978 14091 9774 4

$32.99; 228pp

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