I graduated at the end of 2019 with a double degree in nursing and paramedicine. The area around my childhood home had been severely impacted for weeks by the Black Summer bushfires and I was helping as a firefighter during the summer holidays.
At the start of January 2020, I left my home and family and travelled across the state to start my graduate year at a small rural hospital in the urgent care centre.
At the start of March, my former mother-in-law passed away. That was when we first noticed things being impacted by COVID. At work, things initially didn’t change much. ‘This won’t get to us all the way in Australia, and particularly regional Victoria,’ we thought.
But 2020 turned out to be a bit of a handful—especially to be starting my career in nursing!
There were days when the advice and rules changed three or four times in one shift. I remember one shift we were told to start in N95 face masks; mid morning we were told to wear surgical masks; and by lunchtime we were told to go back to N95s!
One week, it was decided that staff in emergency departments and urgent care centres had to wear full PPE—gowns, goggles, face shields, N95s and gloves—at all times. I was on nightshift, and boy was it a slow night, but we still had to sit there in full PPE. Thankfully, when I came back in the next night, that direction had been scrapped!
The facility I worked in didn’t have negative pressure rooms or the ability to close doors to our resuscitation bays. Many a time we had patients we needed to have in ‘resus’ but couldn’t because they had COVID respiratory symptoms. I had patients in pre-cardiac arrest in back rooms, with just me and a doctor working flat out in PPE for hours to stabilise them.
I remember walking out of one of the back rooms where I’d been working intensely to stabilise a patient. I peeled off my gloves and they fell to the ground full of sweat. My scrubs were soaked in sweat too, but I hadn’t noticed because I was so focused on the patient—and that was in the middle of a Victorian winter!
The hospital decided to put acrylic glass above the curtains in resus so that the glass, combined with two lots of curtains, would make the bay an isolation room.
Patient numbers dropped off significantly during 2020. The urgent care centre relied on patient numbers to maintain staffing levels and it became a common topic of conversation—how many patients did we see this month?
By 2021, it was the opposite—people who had been neglecting their health presented to us and they were quite unwell.
I currently work in a busy regional emergency department and regularly have COVID-positive patients. It’s interesting watching the different guidelines for different emergency agencies. I can be providing direct nursing care to an unwell COVID patient and be stuck in a small room in full PPE only to hand my patient over to a paramedic who is wearing only an N95 mask. The question ‘Will we ever go back to not wearing masks?’ is regularly asked.
Someone at a course I attended recently queried, ‘What would we talk about without COVID?’ The response was, ‘At least it’s given the weather a break!’