A new survey by military charity Help for Heroes has revealed the true cost of Covid-19 on wounded veterans, service personnel and their families with 40 per cent of those living with life changing injuries or health conditions saying they have experienced a delay in accessing NHS services or treatment during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The survey, which took place in May 2020, was completed by wounded veterans, service personnel and their families to enable the charity to understand how their support needs may change in the future. The survey also showed the impact this time has had on veterans’ and service personnel’s mental and physical health with a 50% increase in those saying they are not managing their mental health well compared to before the pandemic started and a 48% increase in those not managing their physical health.
The unavoidable delay to NHS services has been costly with nearly two-thirds of those affected (64%) saying the delay in accessing NHS treatment and services impacted negatively on their mental health and more than half (59%) said it negatively affected their physical health. Furthermore, 34% said they were concerned about being able to access the NHS once the pandemic eases. Help for Heroes’ Veterans Clinical Liaison workers have been reassuring those they support to follow NHS advice that medical help should be sought after if needed, especially for serious, acute conditions.
Former Army officer Cornelia Oosthuizen has experienced the impact of delays first hand. After six months of constant pain and undergoing various scans and X-rays, Cornelia was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) in 2014, a condition thought to be caused by nerves telling the brain a part of the body hurts, even if it is no longer injured.
The full-time wheelchair tennis player, based in Roehampton, lived in agony for nearly five years - taking up to 12 pills a day to stave off the pain - before making the drastic decision to have her lower right leg electively amputated in November 2018. She underwent intense rehab and physiotherapy to learn to walk again. She was due to have an appointment with specialists in April with the aim of having her prosthetic refitted. The appointment was delayed and has yet to be rescheduled.
“I was quite wobbly and unsure on my feet, especially on the amputated leg at the beginning,” Cornelia explained. “It takes time to re-educate your body when you learn how to walk again. Things like your gait, your posture and your weight-bearing feels totally out of place.
“Using a prosthetic leg is a touch harder than I imagined. It can take anything from 3-6 months to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg. I had successfully learnt to manage it but now the prosethetic isn’t fitting, walking has become problematic. I’m avoiding walking where I can and have had to adapt my physical training which isn’t ideal as an elite athlete. I feel like I’m taking unnecessary risks by trying to manage without my prosthetic leg and have become more house bound than I otherwise would have been.
“The delay with my appointment is understandable in the circumstances. It is a relief to know Help for Heroes are there when I need them.”
Cornelia has previously accessed support from Help for Heroes’ clinical advisors, sports recovery programme and occupational therapist to deal with pain management.
Newly developed health coaching within Help for Heroes services empowers wounded veterans to gain the knowledge, skills, tools and confidence to take ownership of their health goals, actively participate in their own care and increase engagement with treatment services when they become available. Throughout the pandemic, the charity has continued to provide specialist clinical advice and support to the UK’s most seriously injured veterans and financial grants to those with urgent care needs.
The charity has also successfully enabled the War Injuries Clinic at Salisbury Hospital to continue uninterrupted throughout the pandemic, to ease the impact the unavoidable delays to NHS services has caused.
Alex Crick, Consultant Plastic Surgeon at Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust said she was extremely grateful to the charity for continuing to support the War Injuries Clinic throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
“The clinic has continued uninterrupted despite the restrictions on travel and social distancing with the use of telephone and video calls appointments for both Veterans and Serving personnel,” she said. “As a result there has been minimal interference with their on-going care. Both myself and my patients really value the support from Help for Heroes, I can’t thank them enough.”
Carol Betteridge, Head of Welfare and Clinical at Help for Heroes, worked with Miss Crick to manage the patient list and faiclitate and run appointments, either virtually or at the hospital. She added: “All of the patients have been really grateful for the contact they have received from Help for Heroes at this difficult time. It has been good to know there is continued support and there is someone at the end of the phone if you need them. It has been so reassuring to be able to continue to been seen at the clinic. They all know and understand there will be delays but they also know they are being supported while they wait.”
The survey, completed by 1,310 veterans, service personnel and family members, also revealed:
Nearly half (47%) of those who experienced delays to NHS services or treatment said they avoided seeking medical help due to anxiety caused by Covid-19.
39% said the pandemic has had a negative impact on their relationship with loved ones while 15% say the impact on relationships had been positive.
The three hardest parts of the experience of lockdown were revealed as; concerns about mental health worsening (57%), difficulty sleeping (42%) and living with general anxiety (41%)
The three biggest concerns for the future are; managing mental health effectively (65%), managing physical health (39%) and being able to deal with setbacks and change (36%)
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Help for Heroes is still ‘open’, delivering critical support to wounded veterans and their families through specially adapted services. Hidden Wounds therapy sessions are being successfully delivered by phone and video conference and also delivering online sleep management support. Virtual coffee mornings and the development of an online sports and physical wellbeing activity schedule is aimed toward motivating and engaging veterans and families..
Additionally, last year the charity successfully piloted the UK's first Recovery College specifically for wounded veterans and families, with the College launching later this year. All educational courses have been created in partnership with wounded veterans and family members and will enable students to manage their own recovery journey. Some of the courses have been adapted so they can be delivered virtually as well as face to face whilst the pandemic is ongoing.
However, the charity is also facing a serious, unprecedented threat to income as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. Help for Heroes relies on the public for 97% of its’ income, and with most fundraising activities and events either cancelled or on hold, this has fallen with the charity expected to lose out on 40% of its’ projected income this year.
Melanie Waters, CEO of Help for Heroes, said: “We are committed to responding to the needs of veterans, latest government guidance and are working closely with valued partners including the NHS during these uncertain times. We are still providing high quality support and championing the needs of all those who are coping with injury and chronic health conditions during the pandemic, to ensure they get the fair deal they deserve.
“It is clear from our survey that veterans with physical and mental health needs are finding recent events challenging and need us as much as ever. The fundraising climate for charities is extremely tough but together we will show our veterans and their families we are still here for them. Right now, we need your support more than ever to keep our services running for those who have given us, and our nation, their all.”