Two nurses praised by Boris Johnson for helping save his life when he was struck down with coronavirus have spoken about what it was like treating the prime minister.
Jenny McGee, from New Zealand, and Luis Pitarma, originally from Portugal, were both namechecked by the leader after he left critical care as he recovered from COVID-19.
Speaking about the experience for the first time, Mr Pitarma said he was “nervous” upon learning the PM would be his patient.
“The responsibility I was going to hold in my hands was quite overwhelming,” he said.
“I didn’t really know how to address him – should I call him Boris, Mr Johnson or Prime Minister? My matron reassured me and said to be myself like I am with any other patient.”
He said that upon meeting Mr Johnson moments later, the PM told him to call him Boris.
“That made me feel less nervous because he took away any formality,” he said,
“Knowing that I was watching over the Prime Minister felt quite strange because I’ve never looked after someone high-profile before.
“I was by his side for the three nights he was in ICU. We had some conversations, including about where I was from. I told him how I’d dreamed about working at St Thomas’ since my first day of training in Portugal in 2009, when I learned about Florence Nightingale and her connection to the hospital.
“He said it was amazing that I wanted to work here for so long and was glad I was there when he needed our care. It was a pleasure to look after him.”
Ms McGee said she was “shocked” when she heard the PM had singled her out for praise.
“My first reaction was that it was a joke! I thought my friends were playing a joke on me. I wasn’t expecting it… it was totally out of the blue and it was just shock. I couldn’t believe that was what he said on TV.”
She says she was getting ready for a night shift when she first heard.
“Someone texted me saying ‘Jenny from New Zealand’ and I was like ‘wow I think that’s me’,” she said.
Ms McGee refused to comment on details of the treatment she provided to the PM, but rejected any notion he was moved into the intensive care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London when his symptoms did not warrant it.
“We take it very seriously who comes into intensive care, these patients who come into us it’s a very scary thing for them so we don’t take it lightly and he absolutely needed to be there,” she said.
She said hearing reports of his time in hospital were “surreal” and that the widespread coverage had been the most challenging aspect of the period.
“All our intensive care shifts are tough for whatever reasons,” she said.
“I think there was a lot of media interest about him being in hospital and to be honest that was the toughest of the lot, as a unit he was just another patient, we were trying to do our best for… so it was business as usual.
“To be completely honest with you I’ve worked in intensive care for 10 years, I’m a sister I’ve been in charge for five years and I’ve been in stressful situations and I was not fazed by this, it was just another day at the office.
“When I got in the car after work each night and I could hear things about Boris Johnson on the news that was very surreal because I thought wow! I’ve been looking after him! but I really wasn’t fazed by looking after Boris Johnson.”
Ms McGee said her home country had come up in conversation with Mr Johnson.
“We just chatted away and it just naturally came up,” she said.
“He was interested in where I came from and what my story was and we spent a lot of time together and we talked away about New Zealand.”
Asked why she had chosen not to return home in the face of the pandemic, despite having been on holiday in New Zealand as the outbreak began sweeeping the globe in February, she said: “I have a sense of duty, I have lived here for 10 years and I have worked in NHS for that amount of time and I’m one of the sisters on the unit, a leader on the unit.
“I just feel a real sense of duty over here helping fight this crisis and it wasn’t an option not to come back.”
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Mr Johnson had praised the “exemplary” care he received from doctors and nurses at the hospital during his coronavirus treatment, saying: “I owe them my life.”
“I can’t thank them enough,” he said.
“I hope they won’t mind if I mention in particular two nurses who stood by my bedside for 48 hours when things could have gone either way.”
He named “Jenny from New Zealand and Luis from Portugal” – Ms McGee, and Luis Pitarma, from Aveiro on the west coast of Portugal.
“The reason in the end my body did start to get enough oxygen was because for every second of the night they were watching and they were thinking and they were caring and making the interventions I needed,” he said.
Mr Johnson is currently staying at Chequers, where Number 10 said he was making “good progress” in his recovery.