Vaccines are safe, important line of defence against Covid-19, explains Dr Sukhpal Singh Gill

Vaccines are safe, important line of defence against Covid-19, explains Dr Sukhpal Singh Gill

Indian medics and clinicians have a long history of fighting on the UK’s healthcare frontline, a fact magnified several-fold by the coronavirus pandemic crisis.

In this new Frontline Series, ‘iGlobal’ not only pays tribute to these British Indian community heroes and heroines of the National Health Service (NHS) but also goes behind the scenes with them to glean inspiring life lessons and key health and safety messages, especially around Covid-19 vaccines, to help us all through these tough times.

Our first in this series is Dr Sukhpal Singh Gill, a general practitioner (GP) and President of the Sikh Doctors and Dentists Association (SDDA).

Dr Gill, who is based at Stroud Practice, Bentley Health Centre in Walsall, spent most of his childhood in India and has some fond memories of growing up in his grandparent's farmhouse in rural Punjab. After moving to the UK, he graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2009, where he embarked upon post-graduate training in General Practice and qualified as an independent GP in 2014.

“My choice of career as a GP was very much motivated by what this career offers in terms of being able to provide continuity of care and supporting people from all walks of life in dealing with disease at its root source – preventive medicine,” he explains.

It was a natural interest in the sciences and people that led him to a career in the medical profession, with some encouragement from his father who is a Sikh priest.

“He taught me values of compassion for fellow human beings regardless of who they may be, which drove me towards medicine. I am fortunate to be the first doctor in my family and am a total advocate for this wonderful profession for youngsters looking to embark on a meaningful, fulfilling, and lifelong career.”

More recently, Dr Gill was among the first crop of frontline workers to have been administered his first of two Covid-19 vaccine jabs. Here, he gives some insight into aspects such as vaccine safety, coping mechanisms during the lockdown and a message for the younger generation considering a career in the NHS like him.

Q: Can you please share your experience of getting the vaccine?

A: I was one of the first few frontline NHS health workers to receive the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine in December 2020. The experience was very humbling, and I felt truly privileged to be offered the vaccine only a few days after it had been approved by the MHRA regulator for use in the UK.

I was screened for questions like severe allergic reaction history for safety and whether I had received any other vaccines (eg flu vaccine) in the seven days prior to ensure any possible adverse side effects could not be misinterpreted should I get side effects from the Covid vaccination.

My assessor also checked whether I was on warfarin or suffered bleeding disorders, which is a common question to ensure we don’t perform intramuscular injections on people likely to suffer large bruising (haematoma) or have a high bleeding risk/tendency. Once it was established safe for me to have it, I was administered an intramuscular injection of the vaccine. A few hours later, I developed a very mild discomfort at the injection site and felt slightly more tired than usual – this lasted just for a day and was easily overcome with paracetamol.

Since then I’ve felt well, and psychologically energised, and reassured that I have some protection against this invisible menace in the heat of a pandemic that has gripped our country. I am still conscious that I need to continue to exercise social distancing, wash my hands regularly and wear a facemask, and observe all the regulations of lockdown stipulated by the UK government to ensure I am not being part of a chain to pass the virus on to other more vulnerable people.

Q: What is your message to those in the community who may have doubts about getting vaccinated?

A: Covid vaccination is extremely safe and effective. It is an extremely important line of defence in our fight-back to have some chance of returning back to normality. However, it will only work if enough people have the vaccination.

We know that the coronavirus is mutating and evolving fast into other variants and fortunately we now know that the vaccine is still effective against the newer variants that have been identified.

It is really important that we vaccinate people fast so that we do not allow the virus to mutate so much that the vaccine may no longer work against it – a concept called vaccine escape. If this occurs, then we could potentially have to put up much longer with Covid pandemics down the line.

It is likely that the Covid vaccination programme may become an annual programme, like the influenza vaccinations, for some sections of the high-risk population (eg. elderly and those with multiple long-term health conditions) as the virus becomes more embedded in to our populations and changes its structure regularly.

Sadly, a number of myths around what is in the vaccination and its safety profile are circulating in social media, and I would implore the general public to look at reputable sources of information like Public Health England or the World Health Organisation.

Q: What are some of the coping mechanisms that help you balance the extra work pressures, stress, and tragedy through the pandemic?

A: Health professionals like myself have been under a lot of pressure to deliver our usual medical services, and at the same time put our lives at risk each day we go into work. I’ve known my patients for a long time who have sadly succumbed to the virus, fellow colleagues who have paid the ultimate price of their lives in fighting against the virus (particularly from the BAME/Indian doctors’ community), and relatives and friends who have suffered dreadful after-effects of long Covid that include complications like pneumonia, and life-threatening heart problems.

Work has never been busier, now with additional pressures to roll out the Covid vaccination programme and extend the flu vaccinations to the over-50s in the UK as a full-time GP. I’ve found solace in knowing that what we do as health professionals still makes an immense difference to patients – even if it is being with them and psychologically supporting them through challenging times. The camaraderie with fellow health professionals, where we are there for each other in difficulty, has been immensely helpful in getting me through some difficult times.

Personally, I now spend more quality time with my family when not at work than before the pandemic, enjoying every moment as it comes. Regular meditation and eating healthily have been helpful in uplifting my spirits in dealing with the increasing day-to-day pressures.

Q: What have been some memorable moments during the course of this crisis?

A: The way healthcare provision has changed to remotely using video conference calling/telephones/messaging/emails etc massively increased the uptake of technology in delivering healthcare in the UK. GP and hospital appointments started largely being conducted over the phone and some of the processes have certainly become more efficient than they were previously.

I am privileged to represent the Sikh Doctors and Dentists Association (UK), and this enabled me to actively get involved in educating the Indian and Punjabi communities about Covid and health issues through media – appearing regularly on TV channels and radio stations to spread the message around health issues impacting the ethnic minority communities in the UK.

It was also memorable to support fellow colleagues in their workplace through providing personal protective equipment (PPE) like specialist facemasks, and carrying out research in the middle of the pandemic about the use of an old Indian beard tying technique called the ‘Thattha’ and its applicability in protecting bearded colleagues with facemasks – the study went on to be published in a reputable journal ‘Hospital Infection’ and attained a lot of media attention internationally.

Q: What would be your message to those considering a career with the NHS?

A: The NHS as an institution is unique in the world in providing healthcare based on individuals’ needs rather than their social standing or ability to pay. This paves the way for subscribing to high ethical standards for those that work within it – this is really fulfilling in itself; drives you towards developing a high moral compass as well as a compassionate approach to life in general.

Working in the NHS is a huge privilege, and it is extremely rewarding to know that everything I do in my job makes some difference to people’s lives on a daily basis.

An NHS career provides extremely large variety, whether in clinical medicine, management, or administration and additionally very good job security. The Covid pandemic has unfortunately shown us how a slump in the economy has affected people’s jobs, however, NHS workers are largely protected given their pertinent and irreplaceable role/experience/skills.

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