I remember with enormous emotion the beginning of my COVID-19 pandemic story—February 2020. Every news bulletin, radio announcement and newspaper spewed endless information about what was going to happen to individuals and the already stretched health system that I worked in.
For the first time in thirty-five years, I dreaded my decision to continue my career as an emergency nurse in a large rural hospital. I willed myself to attend work and get my head around the new restrictions, daily updates and the dreaded N95 face masks that made my glasses fog up, my ears hurt, and my sensitive skin flare up.
I remember feeling pressured to attend the education on correct donning and doffing. There was a simple debrief about what to expect and how we were no longer having relatives stay with any patients over sixteen. I vividly recall the feeling of overwhelming nausea as I suddenly realised that this ‘strictly no visitors’ policy would mean that if my brother with a severe disability attended an emergency department after a seizure or with the dreaded COVID-19 infection, I would not be able to be with him.
While not one to cry, I could feel my eyes filling with tears as the reality that my fifty-two-year-old brother and my parents in their eighties could all die—and die alone. I wanted to run from the donning and doffing education. I had never felt so unsafe or scared in all my years of nursing. I struggled to comprehend the enormity of the pandemic and whether what I was seeing overseas would occur in my hometown and in the very hospital I worked in.
I hated the tearoom because of the endless discussions about COVID-19. I was scared. I was convinced the ignorance of others would mean my brother would die. Suddenly, I wanted others to take the bloody disease seriously because their ignorance could affect me: ‘Just stay home if you’re unwell and wear a bloody mask everyone.’
Chatting to my sisters in two other states made me angrier. If my parents or brother became unwell, they would not be able to travel in and out of Victoria. And despite them both being employed in emergency services, they did not have to wear N95 masks and had no home restrictions.
I felt so alone, so responsible, and so out of my depth. Add this emotional stress to the social restrictions that were placed on us. Being single meant I went home to my small home and old dog each day. I missed socialising. I missed catching up with friends for coffee and drinks. I missed my normal. Thankfully, the five-kilometre limit meant I could still walk by the water near my home. Initially, my friends kept in touch to check on me and to see if work was as bad as the media were saying. Some friends dropped off food. One friend insisted on giving me gifts.
I hated my ‘healthcare hero’ label and wished my friends, family and community realised there were more than healthcare workers responding to this pandemic.
I hated work more each week as further restrictions and policies changed.
I wanted my normal back.
I wanted the patients to stop being so angry, selfish and ignorant.
I did not want to remind every second patient to ‘please wear your mask correctly’. And I didn’t want them to argue and roll their eyes when I explained, once again, why there were visitor restrictions.
I vividly remember being so pleased to be one of the first to receive a Pfizer vaccine and even more relieved when, three weeks later, I received my second dose. I remember frantically trying to get my brother vaccinated so he had a remote chance of fighting this dreadful virus.
I remember telling my boss that the hospital may as well let me be in hospital with my brother if he were admitted as, either way, I would not be at work. I believed if he were admitted and I could not be with him, I would need to be with my elderly parents, providing psychological support to them because it would be the first time in fifty-two years that their son had no-one to advocate for him during his hospital stay.
I recall the utter relief when visitor restrictions were relaxed slightly and my brother fitted the seven criteria to allow family to stay. I screenshot the criteria in case anyone disputed the information. I had a hospital bag packed as I knew the only chance I had of being with him when he was admitted was to get in early and not leave. The bag had clothes, basic toiletries, phone numbers, phone-charging leads, muesli bars, a pen and a notebook.
Work was frantic, patients were sick and frightened, and relatives were angry—they just wanted to be with their loved ones. The norm had changed—we were no longer involving family in the healthcare journey. We discussed most things via phone or, to my despair, via FaceTime. It was clear my wonderful career in nursing had changed and was unlikely ever to return to its previous ways.
I missed my family who lived interstate. I was fed up with wearing masks even though I knew they were necessary. My nostrils were always full of sores, my skin was awful, my hair was broken, the dermatitis on my hands was at its worst. Everything seemed to have a new layer of complexity. Every person being admitted needed a RAT test or, worse, they had to wait for the seventy-minute Qiagen test.
Never ever did I expect myself to wish I had an occupation outside of healthcare. I was exhausted. I was scared. I was frustrated by the attitudes of the COVID haters. All I wanted was for humanity to care about each other and understand that, for some, COVID-19 is a death sentence.