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Navigating the Pandemic as a Migraine Patient (and a Nurse)

Reading time | 6 mins

I think it was around January when I first heard about this new virus in China. I, along with most other people, could not have guessed then how it would soon affect not only people in my country but across the world. 

As the reports and videos from affected areas started to reach us and it became clear that this was going to be a full-blown pandemic, I remember feeling really anxious and uncertain about the future.

Looking back now, I don’t think that there was a single aspect of my life that wasn’t impacted by coronavirus – and that includes my migraines.

Increased pressure and anxiety, increased migraine attacks

I am a migraine sufferer and I am also a nurse in a busy hospital in Ireland. I knew that the hospitals would be greatly affected by the virus and that my role within the hospital would change while we managed this pandemic.

As a specialist nurse I don’t usually work on a ward, but as the pandemic progressed and our hospital became busier, I was redeployed from my role to work on a ward with COVID-19 patients. This was a very stressful time. As a nurse my role is to care and support the ill and help where possible and I was really happy to do so. But I also felt scared and anxious a lot of the time.

I was also experiencing more frequent migraine attacks during this time. Normally when I am that unwell with a migraine I would call in sick, but this was not an option as the situation required all hands on deck.

Still, I was lucky to work where I do since hospital management was well prepared for the onslaught of patients and they guided us well – but that didn’t stop my anxiety. I remember going home most evenings too afraid to touch my kids. I would have my husband stand to one side so that I would have direct access to go straight upstairs to get into what I can only describe as a scalding hot shower to disinfect myself! I was so exhausted in the evenings that I would go straight to bed as I knew I needed to be well rested for the next day’s work.

Anxiety about accessing my own healthcare

I was also anxious that I wasn’t able to access my own healthcare as I normally would. In the past, if I needed advice or information regarding my illness, I could contact my consultant or the specialist migraine nurse.

However with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, they were also redeployed and no longer worked in migraine. So that avenue was closed to me. I was lucky that I had visited my consultant earlier in the year and had got prescriptions for the medication I required. But as the pandemic progressed so too did my migraines. My daily chronic headaches were also very bad and on days that I wasn’t working I would usually stay in bed and rest.

For me, even a simple task like going to the pharmacy to get medication scared me. I was anxious about social distancing and almost suspicious of every other person in the shop, wondering if they had washed their hands correctly. Most people were fearful and anxious about every interaction and as someone with an underlying condition I felt even more at risk and anxious. I ended up asking my husband to go and do the weekly shopping as I felt really uncomfortable and insecure in the supermarket – even though people socially distanced well and adhered to guidelines.

But it was the lack of access to general medical care that really sent my anxiety levels through the roof. I wasn’t only thinking about the migraine service that was ceased, but also about my own nurse service. I was worrying about the patients out there suffering without my usual care.

We had to do what we had to do, but as someone who is both a healthcare worker and a patient, that was very hard. This crisis will have long lasting effects, way past the devastating illness. Hospital waiting lists will now be so much longer meaning that patients are now going to have to wait to access specialist care. This is going to be very hard for migraine suffers waiting to access specialist treatment.

Facilitating care through the pandemic

A consequence of COVID-19 has been that people are reluctant or scared to seek medical advice when needed. I know within my own service in the hospital that we tried to facilitate appointments by using virtual clinics with telephone calls and Zoom videos. These worked well and patients were so grateful to have the link with the hospital.

However, these were on a reduced capacity as the majority of my time was spent on the wards. I know that during the worst of the crisis people were avoiding (and told to avoid) places like the emergency department and GP services for fear of the virus.

There was a definite reduction in the numbers of non COVID-19 patients admitted into hospitals during this time and I am sure that this wasn’t because people were not getting sick, but more out of fear. It is tough to think that people who were suffering were afraid to seek medical advice and support for fear of the hospital environment, but this is the reality of what happened during the crisis.

The way forward

This pandemic has certainly left its mark on the world as a whole and we will be feeling the after-effects for years to come, not the least within the healthcare service.

I’ve experienced the situation from both sides: as a patient, and as a nurse working through the crisis and caring for people with coronavirus. It has been an absolute honour for me to care for people who needed my care the most – this is why I became a nurse.

However, it has also been a very scary and uncertain time in which I couldn’t help but consider my own health and the safety of my family.

As I’ve mentioned, I struggled with anxiety during this time and this was absolutely increased by the lack of access to medical care for migraine. I know that I wasn’t alone. So many of us stayed away from medical facilities for fear of the virus and because of lack of staff as they dealt with the pandemic.

I believe that this will have left its mark on those who live with migraine, and I advise anyone who is suffering now or feeling like they need support to contact their medical team, GP or nurse.

I also think that we need to support each other. This is a very difficult time in all of our lives and one that may linger on for some time. Talking to one another, sharing experiences and swapping insight all helps manage this.

We are being told to stay apart to remain safe, but that doesn’t stop us from coming together to share, support and listen to each other. I believe it is by coming together in this way that we will get through this.     

 NPS-TPE-NP-00016 July 2020