Anne’s mind was whirling as she drove the short journey home after finishing her 12-hour shift at the care home where she has worked for more than 17 years.

Taking a deep breath, she stopped at the traffic lights, knocked off the radio and closed her tear-stained eyes for a moment.

The noise of the rain pelted off the roof of her car, the windscreen wipers slapped back and forth and yet all Anne could hear were 75-year-old Pat’s last gasps of breath two hours before.

The sports-mad great grandfather who enjoyed a cup of tea with two sugars and a slice of toast cut in half with a dollop of butter and marmalade died from Covid-19. The silent killer had crept into the home where he had been for six years, got into his body and took him and more than 10 others as quickly as it had arrived.

Lifting her head as the traffic lights changed back to green, Anne, a single mother of two, tried desperately to think of something else; the painting she promised to do with her younger son the next day, the curry with rice she was planning on cooking that weekend, the WhatsApp call over a cup of Barry’s tea, anything. But all she could feel were pangs of sadness as she recalled losing her latest patient.

“I stood there watching him as his respiration got very rapid; his breathing got very heavy and I watched him dying in front of my eyes. I felt helpless, I gave him all the care I could but his body gave up. That pain does not leave you, nor does the feeling of sorrow,” she said.

Anne held Pat’s hand as tightly as she could and as he slipped away, she broke down in tears. Having spent many of her shifts with him she felt like she had lost a part of her.

“I had to phone his family and tell them their loved one was gone and that they weren’t allowed to come in and see him. That was hard, so hard,” she said.

Then she helped to prepare his body for the local undertaker who would arrive later dressed in protective clothing and wearing a face mask.

“I dressed Pat in his best clothes; I placed the rosary in his hands and closed his eyes and then when the undertaker lifted his body into the coffin and sealed it, I joined the others in doing a guard of honour.

“I wanted to stand there when Pat took his final journey, but it was hard watching him leaving his room; leaving all those memories behind and all the chat,” she said.

Pat’s bed was then stripped, the room was emptied, and his belongings were placed in a box; the framed black and white photograph of his wedding; the Christmas cards from his children; his reading glasses; the photos from his grandchildren’s confirmation and communion, the birthday card from a sibling. This is where Pat’s story ended and there have been very many others like him.

“We have been battered physically, mentally and psychologically. Once one patient dies, another one dies and the next you know you have to go through it all again. It is absolutely traumatic, and I am close to breaking point,” said Anne.

“After working long hours and going home all you're seeing are people struggling to take breaths and you are having sleepless nights because it is all too traumatic. You keep thinking of your patients; the ones who have died from this awful disease,” she said.

Patients like Nan, 80, who used to tell yarns and wore open toe shoes. She always looked the part. “Oh, she was a lovely lady,” smiled Anne.

“She loved her hair; it had to be in curls, her nails had to be the right length and she always had to put on her favourite lipstick. “She loved calling us by name and used to buy us chocolates … I’ll miss seeing her on her zimmer frame and that smile on her face,” she said.

Then there was Margaret, 85, a quiet woman who sat in her room peering through the window or admiring the freshly cut lilies that would regularly appear in the vase by her bed.

“She was very particular about her skin, she always wanted anti-wrinkle cream applied. She had to have her take away, or homemade brown bread, or strawberries. She used to listen to country music and would always sing songs and when her family came in she would give them hugs and say ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’.” Great grandmother Brigid, 92, enjoyed knitting, reading short stories and taking part in group activities such as painting nature scenes or sunsets. She sent Mass cards to her family and said prayers for her carers.

Brigid spent a lot of time planting flowers in the garden, many of them are still there and will now grow long after her death.

“It makes me sad when I look at them, especially with the summer coming. The beautiful colours; the reds, the purples, the white lilies that she’ll never see again,” she said.

Despite suffering from dementia, Maggie, a wife, a mother and a grandmother loved her little walks outside with assistance and used to always ask, ‘How are you pet?’.

“She didn't know my name but asked me how I was until she was only able to say her last few words, even when she was fighting with this coronavirus in her last hours of her precious life and dying, she looked out for me.

“That was the last time I held her hand as she had held mine many times before. She said to me, ‘I am going to my mummy’s home, she is waiting for me’. I saw that gentle soul leaving this world,” she said.

Anne said she feels “overwhelmed and shocked” and says every memory over the past number of weeks “has left a scar in my mind”.

“Those people are not my patients they were my loved ones. Those scars in my heart are going to be quite deep and this will never heal completely,” said Anne, wiping away a tear.

Meanwhile in another care home Mary is looking for antiseptic solution in the attic. She comes across the Christmas directions in a cardboard box with torn edges. Peering out of the box is the top of the artificial Christmas tree which each year stands sparkling beside the television in the day room. To the left of it a sign reads ‘Happy Christmas’.

Rose, 94, watched Mary and her colleagues decorate that tree, taking great delight in suggesting where the tinsel needed to go while Maura, 92, chuckled every time one of the baubles fell and bounced off the floor. One of her grandchildren had been in that day and was engrossed in the twinkle of the lights, as she was. They each gave Mary a wish each [‘a good pair of socks please’ or ‘I want to see my grandchild’] and she made sure they came true. These are happy memories, but that’s all they are now. Memories.

Both Rose and Maura are now dead; their things all packed away like the Christmas tree in the box; their lives switched off like the festive lights and all because of Covid-19.

Despite suffering from dementia, Rose, a wife and grandmother, knew she was going to die.

“She said to me, ‘Everything is going to be OK, don’t worry about me’. We care for those residents, but they help us in return. They may not express their words, but you feel that connection, that love through their touch,” she said.

It was the same with Maura, a former nurse who took much delight in being a great grandmother and cracking jokes. She used to have porridge for breakfast followed by a cup of tea with no sugar and a chocolate biscuit.

“She loved to dance but couldn’t, so every Friday when we had music time I would hold her hand and we pretended to dance to traditional Irish music,” recalled Mary.

And then there was Liam, 98, who was always thankful and full of gratitude. But if he got his medication late, Mary and the others soon knew about it.

“He had his own timings and if we were late he was up asking for it. He suffered from anxiety but loved to draw pictures and he never missed his turkey and ham dinners. And he’d get up and he’d say, ‘I’m away for my exercise’ and off he’d go for a walk in the garden.”

The garden is the first place Mary now goes to on every break. She thinks of Liam and the others.

“I sit in the garden and I cry to myself just to relieve the pain,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion.

“I cry because of the pain; the emotional pain which I am undergoing by seeing the patients suffering that much. I have been literally breaking into tears, it has been so painful, and I have felt helpless at times, overwhelmed and shocked.”

Every night after she finishes her shift and before bed she gazes into the mirror above her sink in her flat; the mark from the protective mask still etched on her face, her eyes still bloodshot from weeping during the drive home.

“I have watched my residents struggle with breathing, even though I was giving them oxygen. I have literally seen their agony and their fear of dying and I have seen and sensed that struggle on the last end of their life.”

As the only means of contact between the sick and their families, Mary facilitated a number of video calls “so they could see each other for the last time”.

“When I was explaining to them, I broke down in tears. I was giving the resident the hug; I was passing the family’s emotion, their feelings through a cuddle to their own mothers or fathers, I was doing that,” she said.

With no cleric from any denomination on hand to support the patients as they slipped away it was Mary who had to step in.

“I held their hands and I prayed for them. I am not a Catholic myself, but I am a Christian, so I asked their permissions. Sometimes they could not express themselves and their heart rate and breathing was going up and down. But I could see when I took their hands in my hands the ease in their physiological symptoms, even in their breathing.

“And I reassured them, I said that I am with them at this moment, but that I cannot be there once they leave this life. I explained with every touch, every small prayer that I was trying to bring comfort to their soul.”

She said she has felt like she has been in a war zone.

“Most of your colleagues are sick or wounded and you are left with two or three and you are losing the people you are trying to keep safe.

“Most of the residents I looked after are gone now,” she added.

The empty chairs, the slippers almost worn to shreds that will never be traipsed up and down the corridors again, the name tags that must now be removed from the bedroom doors, the drawings that were started and will never be finished, the lives cut shorter than they should have been.

“These patients are not my patients; they are my loved ones,” said Mary.

“Those scars on my face from my mask remind me that I am doing my job for someone I loved, someone who trusted me, someone who didn’t even know who I was,” she said.