07 Jul 2022

Kildare Covid-19 frontline volunteers at Punchestown testing centre on their work during second year of pandemic

Niamh O’Donoghue talks to the dedicated local volunteers who have manned the Punchestown Covid-19 test centre for almost 21 months

Kildare Covid-19 frontline volunteers at Punchestown testing centre on their work during second year of pandemic

Caroline Morrin (volunteer coordinator) with volunteers Orla O'Connell, Esther Crilly, Jason Whelan, Derek McConnon and Fiona O'Brien Picture: Ashling Conway

“This is one of the best things I have ever done in my life. I’ve had lots and lots of jobs, but for me the satisfaction and rewards are huge and the team are amazing.”

Cathy Phelan from Castlemartin Lodge, Kilcullen, has been volunteering at the Punchestown Covid-19 testing centre for well over a year now.

“I actually had been working through Covid and I saw that they were desperate for volunteers. I was still working, but I wasn’t busy as I look after bookings for the private house in Gilltown Stud, but obviously nothing was happening because of Covid,” she says.

“I’m not a nurse, I can’t care for people, but I wanted to help out.

“I actually work for the Aga Khan and a few years ago, his highness had a golden jubilee. When people wanted to give him gifts, he said instead he would like people to give a gift of their time — to help out somebody else. That always stuck with me.

“So do you know what, this is my gift of time, it is exactly that.”

Cathy first donned her special PPE gear and took her place in the Punchestown test centre in August 2020. Since her own work has picked up, she hasn’t been able to give as much time but she continues to volunteer on weekends and evenings.

“At the start people were so worried, so stressed. They would pull up in their car and some would be crying, they would be worried about themselves, their family members, about passing it on. It was just horrific.

“There were a lot of fatalities at the time and people couldn’t go to their funerals.”

When they came across someone who was particularly upset, Cathy and the volunteers used to direct the car to one side and talk to them through the window.

“We were often the only people they saw. Many of them were in isolation, they couldn’t bring their sons or daughters with them. They hadn’t seen their grandchildren or friends.

“They would just drive to Punchestown and go straight home, seeing nobody. They were so delighted to have somebody else to talk to.”

In the early days, she stresses they mainly saw people aged in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s; but as time went on, the ages got younger and children started to get tested once they returned to school and started playing with friends again.

Cathy is based in the test centre, and she is often the first face people see when they drive in.

She approaches the car window and gets the details of the person being tested, pops over to reception, gets the forms and makes sure the details are correct.

She puts them underneath the windscreen wiper so the client doesn’t touch them and directs them on to the testing booth where the doctor takes the swab.

“Many volunteers have had to reduce their hours because they’ve had to go back to their jobs as the economy opens up,” she says.

“A lot of the volunteers travel a good distance to Punchestown. Some of them did not know where Punchestown was before they volunteered.

“I have met the most amazing people from solicitors to pilots — all walks of life. The doctors and nurses have been just lovely.”

She points out that the whole team are a really
caring bunch.

“A person who does not want to help people does not want to volunteer. We have the cream of the crop. They genuinely want to help.”

She said some people had been dropping in CVs looking for a job at the test centre and they were amazed when they were told the volunteers don’t get paid.

A large majority of people being vaccinated really appreciate the volunteers’ work, dropping in cakes, biscuits and buns to them.

However, volunteering can be difficult at times.

“Sometimes people may be arrogant or give out, but we don’t mind.

“We just take it, they are just acting like that because they are worried. It’s fear of the unknown.”

Cathy is full of praise for the volunteer coordinators, Caroline Morrin and John Murray. John’s work was praised by Michael D Higgins last year when he received a special award.

“It’s phenomenal. I will continue with the volunteering. I like helping out. The people I have met over there are amazing.”

Caroline Morrin has been at the forefront of the volunteer effort since the very start. Following the countrywide lockdown on March 13, 2020, the Robertstown resident pitched in when a testing centre was set up at St Conleth’s C0mmunity College in Newbridge. In July, testing was moved to the Keadeen Hotel carpark.

“In August, we went into the Keadeen carpark in the morning and then we all headed in convoy over to Punchestown that afternoon, — all the volunteers, HSE staff and the army drove over to Naas and set up,” recalls Caroline.

“At the start, they didn’t know how contagious or how dangerous Covid was. We were gowned up from the top hair on our head to the bottom of our toes — mask, visors, goggles. The nurses used to help us de-gown safely because all the PPE gear had to be safely disposed of. People must have got a fright when they saw us when they came for testing, we were like astronauts. It was like we were in one of those weird movies,” she says.

The volunteer coordinator got involved when she contacted the Kildare Volunteer Network. She helps coordinate up to 100 volunteers at peak times with a core group of 30 to 40.

Completing the rosters and ensuring they are looked after is her priority.

She is hugely proud of the volunteers. At present between 650 and 750 tests are being carried out in Punchestown each day.

“It’s so special to be involved in. There is a real warmth and a real team spirit. For the vast majority, the members of the public are really appreciative of the volunteers’ and the HSE staff’s work.

“It is really fulfilling to be involved in. We have one lady who is only in the country weeks and she volunteers at the weekends while her husband minds their child. It’s a great way for her to get to know her local community.”

Volunteers Orla O'Connell and Jason Whelan with volunteer coordinator Caroline Morrin

Now working with Kildare Leader Partnership, Caroline has continued to volunteer.

Conor Maguire from Brannockstown started his own Covid-19 volunteer journey in September 2020.

He jokes; “I like to think I run the show. I meet and greet people. We are the ones that put you at ease, show you where to go and tell you what’s happening.”

He was based at the mass vaccination centre but was moved to the test centre when that finished up.

“I am semi-retired, so I normally work Monday, Wednesday and Friday. At the start I was doing four days and five days some weeks. We started with 40 volunteers. It’s different. You do four hour shifts,” he says.

He points out some of the volunteers live a significant distance from Punchestown.

“Two sisters come from Celbridge — that’s a decent distance.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Conor puts people at ease.

“It’s been fantastic, an eye opener. It’s very very enjoyable. The HSE look after us, feed us, clothe us and it’s ideal.

“Ninety per cent of people you deal with are good, you do get a few cantankerous ones but you do have a laugh, there have been some funny moments too.

“You have the banter with people and the kids are brilliant, very funny. There is a lot of craic.”

He points out people have been very nice, bringing in boxes of chocolates, sweets and cup cakes.

“One day, I wasn’t there, an ice cream van came in and gave everybody ice creams. It’s lovely to have that acknowledgment.”

Covid may have put a halt to Órla O’Connell’s travel plans, but the Naas resident decided to step up and volunteer at home.

The retired school teacher, who spent 37 years teaching German and English at St Mary’s College, normally does two to three stints a week at Punchestown.

Initially placed in the vaccine centre, she is now in the testing centre.

The Punchestown testing centre

Also part of the meet and greet team, she explains they do have the odd person who has never been tested before, but the vast majority of people have previously been swabbed.

“We could have 500 to 600 people being tested a day.

“You are on your feet for most of the time but you do get your breaks. John Murray is the supervisor and he liases between the volunteers and the HSE.

“I find it great because I have always travelled but Covid put a stop to that and between the golf and the volunteering, it gives me focus. The HSE staff are friendly and we have a laugh.”

Orla is delighted to be vaccinated, which gives her greater protection.

“You wear the gloves, you get people to put the window up two thirds of the way so you have a barrier. The risk and fear has been reduced. We have all the gear,” she explains.

“People sometimes arrive late for their allocated tests. It slows down at lunch. The queues of cars can reach 50 to 60 at times.”

The former teacher is very happy to offer her time, having volunteered a lot abroad.

“I like the whole idea of being a volunteer,” she says.

When she retired, Órla visited India, Gambia, Peru Thailand and taught in many places. As part of the Moldova Project, she volunteered in the orphanage there.

Volunteering doesn’t come easy for everyone and this group of people all have something in common.

They are willing to give up their time for the greater good of society and that can only be applauded to the highest degree.

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