Dr. Larisa Corda is an Obstetrician, Fertility Specialist and Gynaecologist, best known for her role on ITV’s This Morning. She is a regularly featured expert in the media and has contributed to a host of International journals and publications. Her unique approach to fertility includes looking at the most natural, scientific and spiritual routes to healthy conception. Dr Larisa is also a passionate women’s ambassador and has worked with UN Women and The Circle to promote positive action in this space.
During the recent pandemic, Dr Larisa volunteered to step outside of her usual role within the NHS to work in the depths of ICU’s red zone. Here she witnessed the brutal impacts of COVID-19 and the anxieties faced by those pregnant during the crisis. Dr Larisa is passionate to open up transparent conversations on mental health to help break stigma. We are so grateful to include her in our special series ‘Celebrating Heroes’ in the lead up to the launch of our upcoming Cohorted ‘Essentials Edit’ to discuss her experiences, in the hope we can learn how best to recover from the pandemic.
ELLE L in conversation with ITV’s This Morning’s Fertility Specialist and COVID-19 front liner, Dr. Larisa Corda.
What first inspired you to become a doctor and specialise in fertility?
Growing up I felt I wanted to help make a big difference in people’s lives and I never shied from taking on responsibilities. For a long time, I was interested in human rights and ethics, noticing the majority of people who sought to have a voice but couldn’t, were often women and girls. Having been inspired by my Mum and Grandma, both of whom were incredibly strong women, I knew I wanted to be able to use my own voice and skills to help other women. This took me down the path of advocating Women’s health. As a junior doctor, I was asked by my boss to write a chapter for a book called Biopanic. It was about how women face a ticking biological clock when it comes to their fertility. I started learning about the subject before it became as popular as it is now. I realised what a huge issue this was going to be for many women in the future and that somehow, even though the topic was shrouded in stigma and taboo, everyone seemed to have an opinion about it! I realised I wanted to speak out, but also to take on the responsibility and offer men and women the chance of having something most people regard as more precious than their own health – having a child.
What made you choose a role in front of the camera?
I’ve always loved journalism and educating people. I wanted to do that on a wider scale than I sometimes get to do as a doctor, although one on one consultations are equally as important. The medium of TV allows you to reach people that would otherwise be too scared or unable to go to the Doctor. That is especially the case with something like fertility, that still continues to have so much stigma attached to it and where the majority of treatment isn’t funded. A lot of people struggle with that and I feel it’s really important that, where you can, you use your voice to help others. This was well before I ever started any social media, I was a bit late to all of that. It’s brilliant to see how many influencers now are now using their platforms to educate and spread awareness.
Can you describe your first reaction when you heard we were about to face a global pandemic?
I could see the build-up. There was almost this sense that people wanted to live in denial, afraid of realising that for the first time in our lives, we were about to face a threat that was going to affect the entire world. It still seems so surreal to speak about, even now as we are coming out the other side. My first reaction was worry, as was the case for most people. Admittedly I also felt a level of fear seeing the reports coming in from Italy and Spain. They showed us the devastation and scale of the virus we were about to face. I knew if there was a chance for me to help even further than my job as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be able to look back knowing I did everything I could to help as many people as possible. This was one of the ultimate tests of the Hippocratic Oath you take as a newly qualified doctor, which states that you will treat the ill to best of one’s ability. Never in a million years did I imagine I would be called to serve under these circumstances.
At what moment did you decide to volunteer and become part of the frontline efforts to help fight the Pandemic?
As soon as I heard the situation was escalating in the UK and ICU units were struggling to cope, I volunteered my services. I knew maternity was going to be well-staffed and kept safe by my other colleagues, especially as we had to stop all non-emergency services, but ICU was in desperate need of help. I’d never worked as an Intensivist before. The initial thought was honestly very daunting. There was a lot of fear around how vulnerable healthcare staff were to the virus and whether there was going to be enough PPE to keep us all safe. When I told my friends and family, understandably, many of them became upset that I was putting myself in danger and asked me to rethink my decision. I had to try and convince them I was going to be OK, along with convincing myself. I knew no matter what, I had to do this. I couldn’t bear to stand by and watch my fellow colleagues throw themselves in the line of fire without doing so myself too. I guess in so many ways, the situation resembled a war-zone, where the soldiers were suddenly the healthcare staff and there was no other option but to go and face the virus and save as many people as possible. It’s what you’re trained to do as a medic and this was a time to step up and lead by your actions, knowing you may be the only chance of survival for some of those affected by the virus.
How did you prepare?
The preparation was mainly psychological rather than physical. We had a day of training and learning about what would be needed of us in ICU. The seniors who worked in ICU led the session and were absolutely fantastic. They did such a wonderful job putting us all at ease. We were also shown demonstrations of how to don and doff with the PPE. I remember them telling us it would become second nature. I struggled to believe them, but they were totally right, it really did after just a few days of doing it! Psychologically, I meditated and tried to find stillness and peace within myself. I knew I had to build a strong core to be able to deal with the tragedies that awaited my team. On the first day I started, I saw every single bed full, every patient on multiple modes of life support. The incessant beeping of the machines and the unrecognisable faces of colleagues under their PPE… nothing can really prepare you for the reality of how sick so many people were. It was far worse than anything imaginable.
What did a working day during the peak of the crisis involve?
We could see the crisis point building towards Easter weekend. I remember being on call around this time and in all of my career, they were some of the darkest days I can recall. That weekend was spent going from patient to patient, with barely any rest in between. I was helping my senior colleague who was pregnant at the time and still helping to manage the ward. She too had volunteered, knowing she had the skills needed to help in the crisis, she felt compelled to be there. I helped her insert central venous lines, which every second patient seemed to need. They had to be changed regularly to avoid the risk of infection. We made plans for each patient, but sometimes before you were able to act on the plan, a patient would deteriorate. There were so many who were so ill and like every other ICU across the country, we were struggling with having enough machines to cope and enough anaesthetic drugs to keep everyone sedated.
Everyone was pulling together, lifting each others’ spirits where they could and the sense of camaraderie is what kept us going. There was the proning, where a patient has to be turned on to their front for several hours to help improve oxygenation. The process of doing this was painstaking and long and required a team of at least six people to be able to manage the situation and all the tubing, to ensure the patient was turned safely without risk of pressure sores or injury. To put it into perspective, in an average year, perhaps 2 or 3 patients may require proning in the entire hospital. At the peak of the crisis, anywhere between 10 to 15 patients in a day would need this doing. Mentally and physically, being an ICU doctor at the height of the pandemic was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. To see patients die around you, feeling helpless, not being able to save them even after resuscitation, was soul-destroying. Coming from the other extreme of care where I normally help to bring new life into the world, I really struggled to come to terms with the limits of what I was able to do, and I had moments where I didn’t think I could carry on. Yet somehow, somewhere, you find it within yourself to continue, holding on to the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.
What was your biggest challenge during the peak of the pandemic?
I’d say the biggest challenge was mentally coping with the strain of seeing so much death. 50% of patients that initially came to ICU nationwide, did not make it. It was difficult to come to grips with the fact that this virus was claiming people’s lives no matter what their age. We were incredibly limited in terms of what we could do. Despite all the machines, the drugs and the 24-hour care, we didn’t have a cure and we still don’t. We were all learning about the virus on the job and keeping up to date with all the latest reports and experiences from around the world. This is a virus that the world hasn’t seen before and it doesn’t just cause infection, but a multi-system disorder. There were days when I became very emotional going home, and I shared a lot on my Instagram stories where I kept a diary. I felt it was really important for people to see just how hard the situation was. There are those that believe that as a doctor, you shouldn’t get attached to people, but I don’t believe that. It’s utterly impossible not to become attached to the personal stories behind why each person was there and to feel for the families unable to be there. We really had to be the family that these patients needed and one of the things that struck me most was the level of humanity being displayed in a situation that was anything but humane. Despite most of the patients being in a coma, their hands were being held, they were spoken to as if they were awake, they had family FaceTime over video, and their hair was washed, to maintain some semblance of who these people were in the outside world.
With COVID-19, the patients who managed to recover did so slowly, and it was important to have the patience to keep them strong. The biggest challenges of all, came when some of the patients started to improve and they suddenly took a turn for the worse and we lost some people in this manner. To have come close to getting better and have that hope removed was heart-wrenching and incredibly painful for all of us and especially the families. We tried to call relatives if we suspected someone wouldn’t make it, so they would at least get to spend the last few hours with their loved one. It was excruciating to watch, but we just hoped that the families realised that we did the most that we could to help every single patient under our care.
Did you find time to self-care during the pandemic?
All my colleagues were so unbelievably incredible and we all made sure that each one was getting rest or going home a bit earlier if they had family or small children waiting for them at home. During my days off, I definitely tried to practice as much self-care as I could. A lot of it involved getting proper sleep, cooking and eating nutritious food, taking vitamin supplements, doing yoga and meditating. All the things that whilst being a holistic doctor, I realised were going to help boost my immunity and keep me physically and mentally strong. And yes, an occasional glass of wine and Netflix also helped from time to time, I’m not going to lie!
How vital is the role of PPE and sanitisation in dealing with a pandemic?
It’s absolutely crucial! It’s the only means we have, along with social distancing (that we are unable to practice in hospital for obvious reasons) against the virus. We were fortunate in our hospital, that I was never in a situation where I didn’t have access to PPE or sanitisation and that’s owing to the incredible effort my hospital went to, in order to keep us safe. Sadly, there were many places that were not in the same position, especially care homes and it was deeply harrowing to see the virus claim the lives of colleagues elsewhere, potentially due to lack of equipment.
As per the new government guidance, do you think our readers should be wearing facial coverings in public?
The face mask is a general means of PPE. It doesn’t completely stop transmission of the virus from one person to another, but it’s the best we have to protect one another, whilst also being mindful of maintaining social distance. It’s really important we wear it to protect ourselves and others, as we know that the virus doesn’t just spread by coughing and sneezing, but by droplets spread though talking too.
What has changed the most for you in 2020 and how are you preparing to get back to a new normal in the wake of COVID 19?
I don’t think there’s a single person in the world, who hasn’t felt that 2020 has been one of the most demanding and challenging years on record. It’s tested the human race on so many different levels. From the issues pertaining to global warming that we saw highlighted during the Australian bush fires, to the vulnerability of humanity emphasised by the pandemic, to the global racial injustice seen in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s resurfaced a lot of problems we have kept under the surface for far too long, and now it’s impossible to do so. We are being called to do something and take action if we intend to steer our planet towards a new direction of growth and compassion. Whilst there have been many devastating things, I believe there have also been moments of true beauty, such as the realisation that most of us have come to, that life is too short and precious. It’s a true gift that we must never take for granted because at any moment, it could be taken from any one of us. The year has made me even more spiritual than I am, even the way I now view death. I think though we may not realise it, we’ve all grown an incredible amount in heart and spirit and I’d like to think that as we head into the second half of this year, we have the courage and the compassion to lead by example and stand up for the issues we believe in… To say no to racism and injustice, and to value one another as we are meant to.
What are you most grateful for and most looking forward to on the other side of 2020?
I’m most grateful for my family, my friends and my health along with the honour and privilege of being able to do this job and to serve people in a very real way. I have shared in so many miraculous moments and stories of triumph over the virus, where against all the odds, patients have made it to the other side and I got to be a part of that. It has restored my faith and given me hope that with enough determination, we can make it out of this pandemic and that we will be stronger for it. Speaking to all the patients I helped and who survived, without exception, each one tells me how much more they value life now, and I have to say that’s true for me too. Seeing how quickly life can be snatched, makes you learn to value and appreciate all the seemingly small but beautiful things…. a sunset, stepping outside into the sun, feeling the grass under your feet, tasting and smelling a freshly ground coffee and listening to the birds outside. These are the things we remember most.