While the British Para Table Tennis team is making preparations for its Performance Squad athletes to begin training again in Sheffield and Cardiff next month, for Kim Daybell a return to the training hall is still some way off. The 27 year old two-time Paralympian put his career as an athlete on hold back in March to take up a full time position as a senior house officer in a North London hospital and although lockdown restrictions are gradually easing around the country he is continuing to work on the frontline in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I honestly don’t know when I will be able to return to training,” he admitted. “It is going to be a long process for all the athletes but especially for me because of the job I’m doing and the risky position I’m in. I think it is going to take time but I’m working closely with the coaches and the EIS staff at BPTT to decide on a time to come back to training in a safe manner. I’m hoping that in the next few weeks I might be back in the sports hall again. It is a question of picking the right time and making sure it is safe for everyone that I am working with and I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’ve missed table tennis a huge amount. Obviously I didn’t think about it a lot when we were in the midst of the pandemic. From March through to May there wasn’t much time to miss it but I managed to get back on a table and play for a short period of time a couple of weeks ago and it just reminded me how much I have missed playing. I’m looking forward to that next step now things have settled down. I think it is time to look forward now and for everybody to get back to some kind of normality and look for some of the things we enjoy in life again.
“I guess even more than the sport I have missed the team – that squad has been an amazing part of my life and I think not being around them day-to-day and week-to-week has shown me how much I rely on them and how much they support me. Yes, it will be really good to get back on the table but even more to get back in and amongst the players, coaches and support staff who mean a huge amount to me.
“Every single member of the team has been amazing. I’ve had some nice supportive videos on Twitter from my team mates and I speak to a lot of them on a personal level day-to-day. The coaches and staff are always messaging me to make sure I am alright and wanting to offer their support where they can and that has been a really big thing for me. Most people in my position working in the NHS don’t have that whole different support structure and it made this time much easier for me. They were always available to talk to, no pressure was put on me and they were brilliant.”
Work in the hospital is slowly getting back to its normal routine after weeks of caring exclusively for coronavirus patients but in addition to managing the backlog of patients with other health problems the hospital is also alert to the possibility of a second wave of the pandemic.
“There are very few COVID patients now and hardly any in intensive care anymore which is obviously really good,” said Daybell. “We don’t have that stress of the unknown anymore but there is a bit of an odd feeling around the hospital as everyone is just quite tired and a bit drained from everything. After you have been through something like that there is always this period of a bit of a down time and you are not sure what to do with yourself. But as always there is plenty of work to do so we are just getting through that and it is good to get back to some sort of normality.
“I think now there is a bit of time to look back and reflect on what has happened it seems a lot more surreal than it felt at the time. When it was happening you didn’t have much choice – you just had to get on with things and there was so much to keep you busy and now looking back it was a really strange time and something we have never seen before in this country. That is becoming more apparent looking back on it – all our practices changed, the whole hospital was restructured and it was a very odd time.
“I think the hardest thing for me was having to bridge that gap between relatives and patients. With COVID being so virulent people couldn’t come in and see their loved ones when they were really unwell. Making the daily phone calls to update them and being the person to interact and act as the go-between, especially when you are having to deliver bad news, was obviously really tough.
“Normally as a doctor you can take a little step back from that emotional side of things and the relatives can come in and they can talk to the patient and take on that emotional burden when they are going through a difficult time. But with them not being able to come in you had to do that and have that extra compassion and be a bit more emotionally involved with the patients. That was the hardest thing for me as a junior doctor. Higher up the chain the senior doctors and consultants had to make some terrible decisions and I’m sure that was very difficult for them and I was lucky that I wasn’t in the position to have to make those calls.”
It has been said that ‘a crisis often brings out the best in you and you discover qualities that you never knew existed’ and Daybell is able to reflect on the darkest times over the past few months with some pride.
“I settled into it surprisingly quickly and I think everyone did,” he said. “I think if you had said before lockdown ‘it is going to be a global pandemic and you are going to be on the frontline’ it all sounded a lot more scary and actually once it started everyone just looked at each other and put their heads down and got the job done. It shows the resilience of the NHS and the people who work for it and I was pleased that I dealt with it quite well and took it in my stride. When you have proved to yourself that you can come through something like that you know you are able to overcome any challenge.
“The outpouring of support was fantastic from everybody; you could feel that people really appreciated their healthcare workers at that time and hopefully they will continue to do that. People realised just how important the healthcare service is and the support was amazing – local businesses bringing in food and just generally the feeling out in the street. When you spoke to people on the phone they were always really grateful for what you were doing and that helped you keep in perspective what you were doing and why you were doing it.
“I think the NHS is like any workforce and any office in that people are trying to get through their careers and climb the ladder and all that seemed a bit meaningless compared to what we were trying to do so it definitely brought people closer together.”
Being on the frontline during a pandemic has given Daybell additional incentive to work in a country where epidemics are a regular occurrence and medical care is often urgently needed.
“I’ve always thought I’d like to spend some time in a developing country and offer my skills there,” he said. “My parents are opticians and they used to quite regularly go out to Africa and places like that and try and provide some structure and healthcare to the people out there who don’t have any and I’ve always thought that would be a good thing to do. This has just hit home how your knowledge and experience as a doctor can make a massive difference to people in a country like that and I think over time as I become a bit more qualified and my skills become a bit more important I will definitely try to do that. Even in a developed country like the UK we were brought to our knees by COVID and I can only imagine what it is doing to some of the other countries who don’t have the same infrastructure.”
As a Paralympian working for the NHS, Daybell is in a unique position which has attracted considerable attention from the media, something that he admits he has found slightly surreal although he has proved to be a natural communicator and a great ambassador for both the NHS and Paralympic sport.
“I’m not someone who is normally in the public eye,” he explained, “but it has shown me the power that you can have and if you are in a position to get a message out to people and inspire people you should definitely try to do that. It can be difficult because I feel that everyone I am working alongside – the nurses, all the other doctors and everyone working in the hospital – were heroes in their own right. They all deserve their stories to be told because there are some really amazing ones out there. I am lucky enough that through my sport and the support from that I have the platform to do so. It was quite strange but it showed me that if you have got the means to get the story out there and raise awareness it is a really powerful tool and I’m glad I was able to do that.”
Daybell’s story has become a global one and he was one of four athletes from around the world selected by Olympic and Paralympic worldwide partner P&G to feature in a new digital video series ‘The Measure of Greatness’ that was launched on social media this week. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZciNNbgXSIA)
“For them to reach out to me was quite humbling,” he said. “As I said I’ve never really been that much in the public eye and it is very nice to be recognised by them. I’ve seen the video and I think it looks fantastic – they have put across a really nice message. Looking at the other athletes who have been involved they have done some amazing things through lockdown raising awareness and support and I am honoured to be counted amongst people who have done those sort of things. I am glad to be a part of it and to have that platform to sell that story and hopefully raise awareness and inspire people somewhere down the line.”
Daybell may have put his duty as a doctor before his ambition as an athlete but the last few months have intensified his desire to compete in Tokyo next year although he still has to qualify.
“I think it has made me want it even more,” he admitted. “One of the things the pandemic has made me realise is that life is short and while I am healthy and in a position to do what I am doing now it has made me want to do it even more. As soon as the Paralympics were taken away this year I think I realised how much it means to me and it has given me some extra drive to hopefully be competing next year. I think for a lot of athletes it will have done the same because the Olympics and Paralympics have been the rock that most sports have been built around and you wouldn’t think that anything could ever damage that or change that. COVID has shown that is not true so we should definitely cherish those times that we have and strive towards them.
“Tokyo is only a year away but for me it feels a long way off. A lot of nations have been out of lockdown and been training for a while now but for me personally I feel like I have lost a lot of ground and my attention has been completely focused elsewhere, so getting back into training and getting back to the level I was before does seem a very daunting task because it is the longest time I have ever spent out of the training hall.
“I’ve kept myself physically fit during lockdown so I’m ready to get back on the table but the instability of what is happening around the world is also affecting me mentally a little bit. There is still talk of a second wave or things getting worse in the winter and I will still be on standby to go back to what I was doing before. So there are a lot of bridges to cross and still some difficult times ahead to get through but it is a question of taking it one day at a time. The next thing for me is just getting back on the table and playing table tennis again; getting myself in the right space to start training hard and hopefully I’ll be in Tokyo next year and be able to compete.”