TOMORROW night – like the last two Thursday nights – we will stand on our doorsteps, or open our windows, to clap the dedicated NHS workers who are giving their all in the fight against coronavirus.

Every one of them deserves that public show of appreciation but today’s column represents a personal round of applause for a young doctor I’ve known as a family friend since he was a little boy.

Having volunteered to go on the front-line of the pandemic, Dr Mark Russell is perfectly placed to give an insight into the biggest public health crisis in living memory. The fact that he also contracted the disease while treating others – and recovered to go back to work – gives his perspective extra weight.

The son of a doctor and a pharmacist, Mark, 32, from Neasham, near Darlington, was born to have a career in medicine. And now, he is putting years of training to good use by working on a coronavirus ward at a leading London hospital.

His “normal job” is as a Specialist Registrar in Rheumatology, on track to be a consultant in two years. But when the crisis intensified three weeks ago, with cases at the hospital increasing rapidly, the call went up for specialists to volunteer for the Covid-19 wards.

“I wanted to help out straight away, and so did lots of other specialists – it’s amazing how everyone has pulled together so quickly,” he says. “It never crossed my mind not to help out – these are historic times. It’s what you train for.”

In just a few days on a coronavirus ward – caring for around 25 patients – Mark has been inspired by the team spirit of NHS staff. He has also been uplifted by the camaraderie amongst those being treated, shocked by its unpredictability, and saddened by the inevitable deaths.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he admits. “In the majority of cases, people recover and go home. But then there are patients who seem stable initially, but very quickly become unwell, and die.”

Mark, a Cambridge graduate, had only been on the coronavirus ward – one of many such wards at his hospital – for three days when he felt unwell. It began with a slightly raised temperature and runny nose, and he went on to develop a mild cough and muscle aches. He immediately self-isolated and tested positive for the virus.

After spending seven days isolating at home, Mark was well enough to return to work a week ago to continue caring for patients, as well as being on call in the evenings and weekends, as a specialist rheumatologist.

And one of his key messages is that younger people should not be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking only the elderly are at risk. “On my ward, most patients are over 60, and it seems to affect people more severely if they are elderly, or have underlying conditions such as heart or lung disease.

“But it is certainly not an exclusive disease to the elderly – there are also people on the ward who are in their 40s and 50s. Younger people who have been fit and well can also become extremely unwell and die.”

That said, Dr Russell believes we are now seeing signs that Government measures aimed at persuading people to stay at home and practise social distancing are taking effect.

“There have obviously been some exceptions but, on the whole, I’ve been really impressed with how people have responded. Most people are heeding the Government’s advice and it’s so important that everyone continues to do that.

“We have to be prepared for a big spike in deaths, but the aim is that when the virus starts peaking, we can keep that peak below the capacity for hospital beds, particularly intensive care beds. That’s critical, and we can all play our part.”

The stoicism of patients is also inspirational. “One man, in his 80s, was so unwell that I suspected he might not survive the weekend, but by Monday morning, he was right as rain,” he says. “That generation has already been through so much in their lives, and they just carry on without complaining. Their attitude really lifts your spirits.”

He is also inspired by being part of a team of dedicated staff, including specialists from a range of disciplines, who have come forward, without hesitation, to help.

“There are people out of their comfort zones – dermatologists and radiologists – working alongside respiratory specialists, and all of them are in it for as long as it takes, because they understand they are working towards something much bigger than them,” says Mark.

“We try not to leave the ward, so rather than eating in the canteen, the whole team ends up eating sandwiches and crisps together on the ward – it’s brought people together and created a real team spirit.”

He has also paid tribute to the army of former medical and nursing staff who have come out of retirement to bolster NHS ranks. They include his father, Dr David Russell, who has just retired after 34 years as a GP in Darlington, but is continuing to work in the practice during this difficult time.

“Hopefully, we will never see anything like this again, but we need to look back on it and see how everyone pulled together across society. It’s obviously a terrible time, but there are also some real positives that can come out of it,” says Mark.

Tomorrow night, for the third week, millions will say thank you to NHS staff and carers: clapping will ring out, pans will be banged, car horns will be sounded, lights will be flashed – and it is clearly appreciated by those at the sharp end of the crisis.

“It’s so lovely to see and hear that happening – it definitely makes us feel valued,” says Mark, whose wife, Kim, is a GP, and sister, Emma, is training to be a GP. Both have also recovered from symptoms of the virus.

For all those working to save lives at this unprecedented time – some you might know and many more who will be complete strangers – make some noise; let them hear your gratitude tomorrow night.

ALL of which leads me to another round of applause for one of our local supermarkets.

Staff on Ward 11 at Darlington Memorial Hospital, who are helping with the fight against the pandemic, needed a microwave so that they can eat on the ward and minimise risk.

The nurses had a whip-round and went to Morrisons in North Road, Darlington, to buy one. But when the store managers heard what it was for, the nurses were told to keep their money and a shiny new microwave was promptly donated.

Duty Manager Michelle Simpson said: “One of our checkout leaders has a sister working on Ward 11 and asked if we could go halves with a microwave but we decided to donate one for free.

“They have enough on their plates without having to worry about looking round for a microwave to stop their meals going cold. We were only too pleased to help.”

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