“I remember seeing a lady for her vaccination at lunchtime. Her husband had been in hospital and had died from COVID that very morning.
“But she said to us she knew she still had to attend for her vaccination appointment, as she knew more than anyone, just how dangerous COVID is.”
In 2018, after 37 years in the NHS, Jane Williams retired from her role as Immunisation Co-ordinator at Cwm Taf Morgannwg UHB. She returned to work two days a week. For the other three days, Jane was in her element, looking after her grandchildren and spending time down the family caravan.
Fast forward to April 2021, and Jane has, in her own words, “finally left COVID land”, after a whirlwind six months as full-time senior nurse for the Health Board’s vaccination programme.
Jane led her specialist immunisation team to start the planning back in August of last year, when talk of a vaccine first emerged. In just a snapshot of Jane’s role, she has planned how the hospitals would vaccinate their frontline staff, she has trained CTM staff to vaccinate, designed the community vaccination centres to run like hospital wards, and given people their jabs herself.
Jane said: “What has happened over the last six months takes my breath away.
“We’ve had patients crying when they come into the community vaccination centres. They know it is the only way out, and they want to get back to normal and they all want to see their families.
“I’ll go to the ends of the earth to do that in the hope of playing a small role in helping some of these families get back together.
“It’s so emotional. If somebody else cries, then I’m a complete push over … I’m crying buckets, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
“Some of these people haven’t seen anybody since March of last year, they haven’t seen anybody face to face for nearly a year.
“Some of them are very nervous, because they feel vulnerable, and they’ve had to come out to be vaccinated. But then when they arrive and they see the set up at our vaccination centres, they feel more comfortable. We’ve had nothing but positive comments.
“I feel so privileged to be part of a team that can make a difference to people and their families.”
Talking about the vaccination programme is clearly an emotive subject for Jane. Working flat out, this is the first time she has had chance to sit down and reflect on what her, and all the teams involved, have achieved.
She said: “I doubted myself on numerous occasions about whether I could do it. It was so hard, so incredibly hard. It makes me emotional just thinking about it.
“It had to be done. We had the vaccine, and we needed to protect people, fast. We had to get everything ready.
“The hours we all worked … seven days a week, working late into the night, every evening. It was like nothing I had experienced before in all my time in the NHS. The pressure could be overwhelming.
“But everyone was so determined that the blood, sweat and tears would be worth it by delivering the vaccination programme to our communities.
“I was really lucky that my family were so supportive. I didn’t have to do anything at home – I would get home and my tea would be cooked! I was lucky, my family said this is an opportunity not to be missed.
“They said to me - it’s history as it happens.”
Cwm Taf Morgannwg UHB’s vaccination programme has been a huge success thanks to all the teams involved. 60% of people living in the Health Board’s area have now been vaccinated, and CTM remains on course to achieve the aim of offering a vaccine to all eligible adults by the end of July. Nearly 330,000* vaccines have been given since the programme first started.
For Jane, involved right from the start, that 330,000 number feels incredible.
She said: “I was on a ‘Teams’ call with Welsh Government. Vaughan Gething was on there along with a couple of leads from the other Health Boards. He wanted a feel for how things had gone.
“All the discussions were taking place, and I was very quiet.
“Suddenly he said to me … Jane you haven’t said much … how have things gone from your perspective?
“So I said this, that and the other. I talked about the patients – about their reactions – and how emotional it had been. How many vaccines we had done in such a short period of time.
“And then I started to cry – and I couldn’t stop – on the call.
“I cried on a Teams call – in front of the Health Minister!
“I said – I’m so sorry. He said – never apologise to me for getting emotional, what you’re saying is very emotional. It was genuine. I couldn’t help it.”
Smiling, Jane said: “I think he might remember me for a while!”
Part of Jane’s drive and passion for this huge vaccination programme is deeply personal. At the very start of the pandemic, Jane sadly lost her Dad to COVID-19.
At the toughest points, it was his memory that would drive Jane on. She said: “My Dad passed away in April last year due to COVID.
“I know this is one of the reasons I get emotional about what we have all achieved as a team.
“But I also know it has helped me. I know – from my own personal experience – how COVID impacts families and our communities. I can totally empathise when patients and colleagues talk about their losses.
“I’ve been there.
“It’s also why I’m so passionate about vaccines.”
In that context, for Jane, stepping up into the senior nurse role was a difficult decision, but one she doesn’t regret. Stepping back into her normal role is also a difficult decision, to let go of the programme. For Jane though, the challenges of general immunisation work are great, making sure MMR rates stay up to avoid a measles outbreak for example and, before we know it, the flu campaign will be back around again.
Do not be surprised though if you are heading to a community vaccination centre and happen to come across a familiar face.
Jane said: “I do love working in the community vaccination centres. I’m at my best – actually doing the doing. So I’m going on the bank myself and will be doing some shifts at the centres.
“This has been such an emotional journey.
“There is no way we could have done it without all the different teams that have come together – and those relationships won’t be broken now.
“We’ll always work together from now on … across all the different departments.
“There is a real bond now.”
*Figure correct 21.04.2021