“Being cast as the hero makes me feel slightly fraudulent,” Dr Craig Leaper admits as he talks to Toby Bryant on a rare break at West Middlesex Hospital in the final article of our key worker series
Craig has spent 2020 juggling life as first a medical registrar and now a consultant on the Covid frontline, together with his role as coach for the nearly 40-strong club squad at Furnivall Sculling Club. Despite his modesty, that title as a superhero does feel warranted.
In his role with the NHS, Craig is part of the team looking after patient admissions, diagnosing them and then moving them on. In 2020, unsurprisingly, those admissions have been dominated by Covid-19.
“At the moment we only have about 34 Covid patients in the hospital, which is good,” Craig says. That number may seem high, but it’s nothing compared to the wave faced in the first lockdown.
“There was a hell of a lot of Covid patients. It was like a tsunami. All other medical patients stopped turning up and it was just Covid, Covid, Covid. The hospital quickly became a different place.”
Day-to-day life at work has been all-change for Craig, who caught Covid in March himself, in a year which the virus has made for a steep learning curve. “We are a lot better dealing with the patients now than we were previously when it was an unknown virus,” he reflects.
Craig is quick to nod to his colleagues and the NHS team spirit which has fuelled the fight against the virus, smiling when thinking about the Clap for Carers initiative that swept the nation earlier this year.
“I think the atmosphere of how teams pulled together under adverse circumstances was amazing. People really did step up to their roles which was great. The intensive care unit ended up filled with some nurses who just weren’t really used to that environment, but they did well.”
“It was a bit stressful at times because people were tired and emotionally drained, but we found a good system as it went on. The NHS is good at just getting on with it.”
When the going did get tough, Craig got rowing. Furnivall Sculling Club sits on the banks of the Thames, a stone’s throw away from Hammersmith Bridge, and is where Craig looks over the club squad.
“It’s a diverse group of people of age, gender and ability. It’s people who want to take the training seriously, but don’t want it to define them. My role is just trying to coordinate them all and trying to bring them on as a coach.”
In an unprecedented year for Craig and the NHS, having the Furnivall club squad “has been a silver lining to this whole pandemic”. During the first lockdown, a five-day rota at the hospital helped Craig get the time to de-stress.
“It’s amazing having to get somewhere – it organises your day a lot better which helped. That’s the reason I’ve been rowing for the past 30 odd years! After a stressful day, to be coaching, sculling or rowing helps forget about everything else and that’s the joy with it.”
Getting back on the water in 2020 has come with its logistical challenges, even for those like Craig who are clued up on how the virus works. For him, having the new guidelines has helped.
“It’s the ritual, such as wiping the boat and cleaning the blades. That makes you keep in your mind that Covid is out there. At the end of the day, with the changing rooms closed and people not using the toilets too much, the chances of actually transmitting the virus at the boathouse is relatively low compared to home, work and social situations.”
“The biggest silver lining was being ‘forced’ to put the squad out in singles. That was the best thing to improve anyone’s rowing and has really paid off for the squad and for me too.”
As with everyone, the loss of rowing for great parts of the year has given Craig a new outlook on the sport and an even greater appreciation for being on the water.
“If there’s a big takeout going forwards, it’s got to be the enthusiasm of members to go out and row. The club squad really has stood out in terms of being out there the most.”
Is there one thing he’s looking forward to doing the most in 2021? “One!” he laughs. The list is as long as his arm.
“It’ll be the simple things. Going out and being able to relax with our friends. Seeing our family and not worrying that we can give Covid to our parents and grandparents.”
“From a job perspective, I’m ready to get over pandemic medicine. It’s been a great experience for learning but, like the rest, it would be good to return to some sort of normality.”
“For the club squad, it’s going in a lovely virtuous circle where the more experienced rowers are bringing on the less experienced. The numbers have gone up this year too and I think there are very few sports in the country that can say that.”
Catch our previous articles with members of the rowing community in our key worker series on British Rowing Plus