I landed back from Hong Kong on the 3rd of June 2020 knowing that I would be furloughed for the rest of the month at least. I have been flying as cabin crew for 16 years and the aviation industry had never looked so vulnerable. My airline went from planning for one of its busiest summers ever, to suspending all customer flights and only operating a few cargo flights in a matter of months. It was very clear to us that this wasn’t sustainable and we all knew that drastic changes were coming.

Finding purpose by supporting the NHS

I had flown throughout April and May operating cargo flights for the NHS, flying predominantly to Shanghai and Hong Kong to collect PPE such as masks and aprons, flying there and then straight back (after we’d been filled to the brim with cargo) all in a single duty. We would spend 27 hours on the aircraft in one go, but we did it with no complaints, knowing that we were helping the NHS and doing something to contribute; it was the very least we could do. 

Following that, knowing I would be furloughed, I didn’t want to sit idle and worry about my future and job security. I wanted to find something to do that would enable me to continue helping the NHS in any way I could and luckily (for me) I saw a post about Project Wingman on social media. I looked into it further and decided I wanted to be involved so I applied to volunteer at Watford General which is my local hospital. I was given an induction date, but unfortunately the day before it was cancelled as the lounge being used was being repurposed and no other suitable areas were available. I was upset to say the least but I decided to research other opportunities.

A few days later I received an email from Project Wingman asking if I would consider other hospitals in my area that needed volunteers. I read through the long list and right at the bottom was Harefield Hospital. In that instant I knew that this was the hospital for me, as both my father and grandfather have been patients at Harefield and my father still attends a clinic there. 

I emailed my reply and a week later I was at my induction at Harefield. I was introduced to my fellow volunteers, shown the basics and then handed a cup of tea and asked to take it to a nurse sat outside and that was it, I was officially part of the Harefield wingman team.

Life as a volunteer at Harefield Hospital

From the very start I was made to feel welcome from both fellow volunteers and hospital staff and being thrown in at the deep end it made it very easy to fit in and become part of the team. I was surprised at first how much the NHS staff were fascinated by my job, asking questions and saying how they could never do it! I was amazed as it mirrored how I felt about our NHS workers and I was so humbled that they would be interested in me and listen to my stories and I of course was fascinated to hear about theirs.

The beauty of the lounge was one moment you could be talking to a heart surgeon about your favourite type of cake and showing them photos of your cat and then the next you were talking to a nurse about local pubs and clubs you both went to when you were younger. I found the majority of staff would not really want to talk about their jobs or their experience of Covid, so they loved coming to talk to us as it allowed them to escape for a while and forget what worries and stresses they had in what was a very high pressured and demanding working environment.

Knowing that we could help meant so much to me and the other volunteers and we were so proud knowing a little chat with someone could make such a difference. What I loved about the lounge was the variety of people that would come in: some would come in daily, others once in a while and one afternoon an air ambulance landed and the pilots came in for a sausage roll!

Towards the end of July we were made aware that the lounge would be closing as the space we were using was needed for hospital visitors who were now allowed back into the hospital. On the 6th August 2020 we had our last day and we were asked to go outside but we weren’t told why. As we went out the door the sound of applause was overwhelming and we soon realised that most of the staff from the hospital, who were able to, had come out to say thank you and goodbye. It was so emotional for all of us and there was not one dry eye amongst us. We were told time and time again by the hospital staff that we had helped them so much and that they really appreciated us, but the feeling was most certainly reciprocated.

During the time we were at the lounge all the airlines went through redundancies and restructuring which affected every single one of us. Our job security and futures were all in upheaval, but knowing we had a purpose and reason to get up and leave the house each day to volunteer in the lounge meant so much to us all. My furlough pay didn’t even cover my outgoings and my dad had to help me buy food as I had nothing to live on, but I made sure that I had enough petrol to get me to the lounge as it was so important to me. I would really look forward to going in and seeing and talking to our new friends we had made at the hospital and I even baked items at home to take in which was most certainly a labour of love. 

I was extremely lucky to keep my job and I went back flying in September, but still, I missed the lounge and the people there. We had a group text chat with all the volunteers, so I was lucky to be able to keep up to date with them.

Returning to Harefield with the second Covid-19 wave

Then in February 2021 the group chat came alive to the news that the lounge would be reopening, albeit a slightly toned down version. I was so happy to hear this news, but unfortunately I couldn’t commit to the Lounge as my airline required us to have 14 days clear between volunteering and flying which I wasn’t able to do. I wasn’t happy about this so after many begging emails and postings on our staff forum I finally got permission to volunteer again. My first shift at the new lounge was on the 19th February and I was thrilled to be back. Within minutes I was catching up with staff that remembered me and it felt as if I’d never left. The lounge we have now is smaller, but the ethos is still the same and the importance of it to the staff and us as volunteers certainly hasn’t diminished.

No matter if you are the head of the hospital or a ward cleaner, we are so proud to serve each and every staff member and offer any help that we can. I hope to continue volunteering as long as possible, but I know for certain Harefield will always have a place in my heart and I will always help out wherever and whenever I can.

For me one of the most fundamental values of Project Wingman is that of caring and looking after each other and that is a value that has been upheld by both sides. It is so heartwarming to see former volunteers who were made redundant coming into the lounge as they are now working at the hospital, having been found jobs in various roles in the trust. We stepped in and helped the hospital when they needed us the most and they have looked after us when we needed them and for that I will be eternally grateful. What was undoubtably an awful period for everyone, I personally will look back on with great fondness and happy memories, knowing that the lounge and hospital made a very difficult situation much easier to deal with. 

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