By Annie Driver
Warwickshire Gaelic footballers in the National Health Service (NHS) are amongst those on the frontline in the fight against the coronavirus, which is sweeping across the country.
It’s latex gloves rather than O’Neill’s ones for them all at the moment, and for the foreseeable future.
Two midlands clubs with a high number of NHS students and staff in their teams are Birmingham’s John Mitchels and Coventry’s Roger Casements. Both offer Gaelic football and camogie.
Similarly, University of Birmingham and Coventry University Gaelic Football see many Irish girls, who are on NHS courses, come through their clubs.
John Mitchels footballer Cait Nee, an AMU nurse in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, was due to get married in May.
Due to the virus, however, she’s had to postpone it until October and is currently covering extra shifts.
“A few weeks ago I would’ve been distraught about my wedding being postponed but now I know everyone has to do their bit,” Cait told the Irish World.
“As an AMU nurse, I work with a fantastic team who have pretty much seen it all, but even the most experienced will admit that they are scared at the moment.
“Thankfully we still have capacity, but some of the Covid-19 patients we are seeing are very poorly, and can deteriorate very quickly.
“There is a real sense that the worst is yet to come.
“PPE (personal protective equipment) is so important, but for these patients their only human contact is with staff so covered they can barely see our faces.
“Patients with hearing problems are struggling even more as sound is muffled through the masks and they can’t lip read.
“Visiting has been suspended in all but the most extreme circumstances which is necessary to reduce spread, but distressing and isolating for patients and their families.”
Cait, who is Birmingham-born and whose family come from Mayo, reiterates the importance of self-isolation – if a member of a household is showing symptoms, the rest of the household must self-isolate for 14 days, despite not being unwell.
“In order to continue working, staff may volunteer not to go home for two weeks, and instead stay in a hotel. The hospital are arranging this,” adds Cait, who followed in her mum’s (Finola Moore) footsteps when she became a nurse.
Finola works at St. Mary’s Hospice in Birmingham.
“Many of my colleagues (myself included) have said this is what they will do should the need arise.”
Cait’s is not the only wedding to be cancelled due to the coronavirus.
“Everyone you speak to has had plans cancelled – we have had to cancel my hen weekend as we can’t get flights to Ireland,” she says.
“A girl I work with has had to cancel her wedding this weekend, countless holidays and family events.”
Similarly, the Birmingham-born Sharkey sisters – their dad is from Tyrone – also work as nurses in Birmingham.
Breena is a Ward Sister at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Keely works in intensive care at Heartlands Hospital, and has recently been given a Ward Sister’s post.
Kelly Cooke, the most recent dual player to join John Mitchels, has started working as a radiographer at Good Hope Hospital in Sutton, where a patient with confirmed coronavirus has died.
Originally from Cavan, Kelly says in some ways she’s relieved to be living in a one-bedroom flat on her own at the moment, away from her family.
“The fear of bringing the virus back home after work to my parents or brother, who has asthma, would not be worth it,” she says.
“I see some of my colleagues stressed in case they pass on the virus to their elderly parents and I’m relieved I don’t have anyone to worry about. But I also know my mam is worried sick.”
GAA would have provided a welcome outlet for Kelly, and many like her. But all GAA activity at all levels has understandably been suspended until 29 March.
Croke Park itself has been transformed into a drive-through Covid-19 testing centre.
“It’s hard now when there’s no football or camogie in the evenings to keep my mind occupied. I can’t meet up with people to keep busy,” says Kelly.
“But I also don’t mind doing some extra shifts right now.
“It’s definitely the right thing to do for the GAA to cancel everything until we get a hold on this.
“But it’s going to have a huge impact on people’s mental health, especially for some of the other girls who rely on training a few times a week to get them out of the house and socialising to distract them from being home.”
Grace Cahalane, who moved to Birmingham from Meath and is captain of University of Birmingham Gaelic Football Club, has had her final year as a radiographer abruptly ended.
As part of the government emergency measures to deal with the pandemic The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)are able to register people who have voluntarily left the service in the past three years.
It stated that ‘final year radiography students, on UK programmes, who have completed all their clinical practice placements, will also be added’.
Student radiographers, like Grace, alongside other final year NHS students, are suddenly finding themselves prematurely in work before graduation to bolster staffing levels in hospitals.
Roger Casements, based in Coventry, is similarly made up of girls working in the NHS across the West Midlands, with many working in the Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust.
Captain Mairi Mulvenna, a Lecturer in Sports Psychology at the University of Northampton, says the role of GAA for NHS workers is imperative to “promoting and maintaining a sense of well-being”.
“When so many of us rely on our sport for this, Covid-19 has provided an enormous challenge to that,” said Mairi.
“At such unprecedented times, it is difficult to know what is coming our way over the next few weeks, but what I am sure of, is that we are ready for the fight this virus presents.”
Roger Casements, who won an All-Britain title in 2018, share that same determined spirit and comradery.
“I know that because I have the greatest faith and confidence in a group of ladies I am privileged to captain and call my friends.
“They also happen to be on the front line as NHS workers across many departments working tirelessly and united in the fight against Covid-19.
“Nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, a doctor, a surgeon, a student radiographer, a clinical engineer…you name it, we have them at Roger Casements, doing their bit to provide specialist care, support, and treatment in hospital and in the wider community.
“As a club, we are incredibly proud of the work they, and all other club members who also work for the NHS, are doing and will continue to do until we are victorious in this battle.”
The club is also one of many to heed the words of GAA president John Horan and has reached out to extend support to the wider community in Coventry, particularly those who are at risk and in need of a little extra help.
Whether that be assistance with grocery shopping, pharmacy runs, or just someone in need of a chat.
Always learning from our in-house healthcare professionals, we know to never underestimate the positive impact a smile, a few words, or a helping hand can have.
With so of her teammates working in high-pressured environments, Mairi stresses the importance of well-being and staying connected.
“As a squad, we are continuing to look after our own well-being too – even though we can’t physically exercise together as a team right now, we are keeping up our activity at home, virtually, or in the garden!
“We continue to talk, share workout ideas, pictures, videos, etc recognising the importance of just staying connected and active, and we urge you to do the same.
“These times won’t last forever – we will soon be back on the training ground together with a football in hand – we can’t wait!”
It’s all about adapting. John Mitchels ladies football manager and personal trainer Vernon Fallon doesn’t want the pre-season momentum to stop and is providing online workouts to keep his squad moving.
“The implications of social distancing are going to, unfortunately, cause a lot of mental health struggles for some people,” said Vernon.
“Gaelic Sports in our normal environment offers all participants the opportunity to attend training, to socialise, enjoy the craic, have some banter, whilst also being physically active.
“Training is more than this, it also offers a period of mental relief from normal daily struggles, be it school, university or work.”
He added: “During the current difficult times, it is even more important for us all involved in Gaelic Sport to pull together and ensure we offer each other support and remain together.
“There are many ways to achieve this. Currently with our ladies team at John Mitchels we are doing two mini circuits a week in our own space, completing the same exercises at the same time. This gives us a sense of togetherness, with banter along the way.
“It is never going to keep us as fit as our normal training routines, however, in times like this it’s more important to be stronger mentally and offer each other support and that’s what Gaelic is all about to me, togetherness.”