The Kiwi ICU nurse who UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly praised for helping save his life while he battled Covid-19 has talked of the "surreal" impact of becoming a global name overnight.
Jenny McGee from Invercargill was singled out by Mr Johnson in a social media video he posted after he left hospital earlier this month.
Ms McGee, now known globally as "Jenny from New Zealand", has worked as an NHS nurse for ten years in Britain.
She had been by Mr Johnson’s bedside during his time in intensive care to make sure his body was getting enough oxygen throughout the night, one of two nurses on a 48-hour watch. Mr Johnson credited their care as the reason his body began to fight back against the virus.
In her first and only interview, Ms McGee has today opened up to TVNZ's Europe Correspondent Daniel Faitaua about working in the intensive care unit, the overwhelming amount of attention she received after Mr Johnson’s video - including a message from her hero Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - and her own message of thanks to New Zealand.
Ms McGee says she had no idea the UK Prime Minister would be thanking her publicly, saying she originally thought it might be a prank.
“My first reaction was that it was a joke! I thought my friends were playing a joke on me. I wasn’t expecting it - it was totally out of the blue and it was just a shock. I couldn’t believe what he said on TV,” she says.
“I was just doing my usual routine for night shift and someone texted me and said ‘Jenny from New Zealand’ and I was like, wow! I think that’s me!” said the 35-year-old.
The Ward Sister told 1 NEWS she’d had a fair idea she’d be looking after the country’s leader after learning about his admission to St Thomas’ Hospital from media.
For two days in ICU she kept a bedside vigil by the 55-year-old as he fought for his life.
“We’re constantly observing, constantly monitoring, constantly guiding therapy and feeding back to the doctor but we also have a lot of autonomy as well,” she said.
Ms McGee would not go into the specific treatment of the Prime Minister’s condition out of respect for his privacy and she denied any suggestion Mr Johnson was given extra special treatment because of who he is.
“Absolutely not. We take it very seriously who comes into intensive care, these patients who come into us. It’s a very scary thing for them so we don’t take it lightly and he absolutely needed to be there,” she said.
Mr Johnson was admitted to hospital earlier this month after failing to shake off the virus, which has killed more than 18,000 people in the UK. He was then moved to the intensive care unit for three days before later being discharged by doctors.
“He was interested in where I came from and what my story was and we spent a lot of time together and we talked away about New Zealand.
"Yes, told him I was from Invercargill and he was interested to know about Invercargill.”
Ms McGee said the toughest part of the shift was having to deal with the huge media interest but her team’s priority was on restoring Mr Johnson’s health.
‘Message from Jacinda’
After Mr Johnson posted the video thanking all of the staff who had treated him, she says she had to turn her phone off - not realising a message from one of her heroes was waiting to be read.
“It was so overwhelming and when I turned my phone on in the morning people were like 'Jenny you need to look at your Facebook' and I was called a snob for not responding to Jacinda.
“It’s very surreal to have a message from Jacinda. She’s a hero of mine. I think she’s amazing, she just said how proud she was of me and the country was so proud and it was so heartwarming and that’s something I will never forget,” says Ms McGee.
“I responded and she like messaged back immediately, a little bit of banter which again was surreal, a couple of emojis and so it was very, very surreal experience.”
Despite the global fame and new high-profile supporters, she says her friends have kept her grounded.
“I’m getting a lot of stick from my workmates. It’s very funny during a time when we need light relief.
“My mother also famously said I ‘twiddle with knobs’ on one of her interviews and I am getting a lot of stick for that! Thank you mum!’ she says with a smile.
The light relief comes as the UK deaths from coronavirus have continued to grow and NHS hospitals are overwhelmed by more and more infected patients, which is taking a toll on healthcare workers.
“We’re just doing our best to save many lives as we can. We’re putting in the hours, working long hours and we’re physically exhausted and it’s taking an emotional strain on us as well.
"But the great thing coming out of all this is the wonderful sense of spirit and team work in NHS,” Jenny says.
“The team I work with, everyone is stepping up and we’re coming together, there’s camaraderie and we’re going to do this! We won’t be beaten!”
She added: “There are really tragic stories of more than one person dying from a family or we’re nursing other nurses, other doctors, bus drivers, people who are doing what we’re doing and that is very scary.
“You know it’s unsafe for some of our visitors to come in at the moment and some people are dying without their loved ones around so, as much as we can be there to hold their hand, it should be their family and that is heart-breaking to watch.”
As a leader on the unit Jenny says she’s grateful for having a fantastic team pulling together when times get tough. She also said the outpouring of messages from Kiwis at home and around the world have been a boost before she goes to work.
“The messages are adorable, there are kids telling me they want to be a nurse, families saying how proud they are and it means so much right now, people will never know how much it means. Thank you.”
Ms McGee was home in February, just before things began to kick off in the UK in terms of the pandemic. She says she’s hoping one day to get back to New Zealand, and is proud of the effort Kiwis are putting in to help fight the virus.
“I know we’re still in lockdown in New Zealand, please continue to stay home. You’re doing such a wonderful job you don’t want to see how it goes if it was like over here - so keep up the hard work.”