Blog: When research gets personal

We are re-running this blog (dated July 2020) to mark National Day of Reflection taking place today on the second anniversary of the UK lockdown. A minute’s silence is being held as part of a series of events organised by the end-of-life charity Marie Curie to help commemorate those who have died during the last two years.

Author, Alison Kerwin, Marketing Director at the University, talks about the personal cost of COVID-19 and why she chose to fundraise for the University’s COVID-19 research programme in memory of her dad.

“It doesn’t feel like five minutes since I sat in one of the meeting rooms in the Foundation Building, ‘virtually’ meeting colleagues from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), our campus in Suzhou, China. The team were all working off-campus and we in Liverpool, marvelled at how quickly they were able to adapt.

And then it was our turn. Suddenly the tables had turned and as XJTLU colleagues prepared to re-enter their campus, we were beginning to work from our own homes. It was suddenly real. It wasn’t a virus that was killing people on the other side of the world. It was on our doorstep. It was a pandemic.

My first thought, like so many others, was for my family. My dad was considered ‘vulnerable’ as he had a chronic lung condition so we agreed to shield him. My mum battened down the hatches, leaving food deliverables outside for 24 hours before she took them inside to disinfect. We began doing family FaceTime calls. My sisters and I giggling as we watched our parents try to get to grips with the technology. No matter how hard she tried, Mum never did manage to get her head in the frame.

We stayed away. They stayed home. We did everything right but we lost him anyway.

On 2 June, my darling, witty, salt of the earth Dad died from COVID-19. He was 75. Eight days away from celebrating his 48th wedding anniversary and my mum’s 70th birthday.

He went into hospital virus-free, battled a nasty bout of pneumonia, came home to a hero’s welcome but then began to struggle to breathe again. This time he had a fever and when he returned to the hospital the blood test confirmed our worst fears. He was COVID-19 positive.

Now I’m an optimist but I knew it was a mountain too high for him to climb. And Dad did too. That is the bit that kills me. He slapped a smile on his virtual face but he knew he was going to die. He knew he’d never see us face to face. Feel the warmth of our hugs. The touch of our skin. For two weeks he went to sleep at night believing he wouldn’t wake up. Possibly, even hoping.

And yet when the doctors came round with more plans, new things to try, he embraced them all with gusto. When doctors suggested he take part in a COVID-19 drug trial, he agreed without hesitation. Mum tried to talk him out of it, worried he would be taking an unnecessary risk, but he was insistent.

“It may help my grandchildren one day,” he told her, leaving her no option but to support him.

And for me, well it left me enormously proud. I have the great privilege of working for a University so I get to see the transformational impact of research every single day. I understand the value of clinical trials. I know how hard and fast the scientific community are coming together to try to understand this new virus. I write marketing statements for a living. I am well versed in talking about how research changes the world and I have always believed it to be true, but there is something humbling about transformational research staring you in the face. It is different when it’s suddenly personal.

I have witnessed my own institution throw everything it has at responding to the pandemic and I was so very proud of my dad for wanting to play his part. Not for himself, but for his family. Because he wanted something better for the people he knew he’d leave behind.

When he died, like many grieving families, we set about fundraising in his memory. I wasn’t sure if it was a distraction or a desire for something good to come from his death. Either way, it was clear to us we had to fundraise for Liverpool. What better way to honour my dad and to support the incredible endeavours of my colleagues here on campus than to raise funds for our own COVID-19 research programme. I’ve witnessed first-hand how colleagues have risen to the challenge that this pandemic has thrown at us and it means more to me now than it ever did.

If we understood more about COVID-19 then my dad might be here today. He was placed in a COVID ward despite a negative test because he fit the COVID bill (so to speak). It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was a symptom of the terrible position we find ourselves in. Doctors and nurses are scrambling to save lives without understanding what they are dealing with. We simply don’t have the understanding (yet!) to make informed decisions and while we don’t, we are collectively winging it with people’s lives. And we will continue to until we know more. To date, we have lost more than 40,000 people in the UK. The only way to stop this is to keep at it. Research, research, research.

Keep going Liverpool colleagues. We’re incredibly proud of you!

And when it’s over, and I pray it’ll be over, have a pint for my dad.”