Hi there! It looks like you're using an old browser. Please try visiting this site on a new browser such as Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera or Edge for the full experience.


Olivia—Registered Nurse
Intensive care
Metropolitan Melbourne

At 5:30am my phone pings with a message: ‘You’re working in COVID today.’ That’s the COVID ICU ward, where we care for critically ill COVID patients.

My heart starts to race. Not again. I close my eyes and press my forehead. I was in there only yesterday. My face is still sore from my mask—the purple welt across the bridge of my nose is still throbbing. I don’t want to spend another twelve hours in all that PPE.

I arrive at work and get changed into scrubs. I change my shoes just in case I bring sickness home to my two babies. I’ve decided to leave a pair at work to lower the risk for my family.

Hand hygiene. Gown on.

Hand hygiene. Mask on.

I wince. Fuck, it’s so tight.

That bruise on my nose is killing me.

Hair net on. Face shield on.

Hand hygiene. Gloves on.

I breathe and the shield mists over.

There’s a leak in my mask.

I can’t see properly.

I already feel claustrophobic.

It’s like everything is on top of me. Breathing is hard, the mask is tight. There are layers on layers and it’s like I can’t escape. Yet it’s only been a few minutes. How do I survive twelve hours in this again?

‘It’s okay, you can do this,’

I whisper to myself.

Time for work in the ICU. My god, it’s hot in here. It’s not long before I’m soaked with sweat under layers of PPE. At my next break I’ll have to change my scrubs.

We need to intubate a patient. Damn. I guess the scrubs will have to wait. The doctor is trying to put in an arterial line. We work on the patient for almost an hour. I’m so hot, so trapped in all my layers of plastic, that I think I’m going to pass out. The doctor is looking down at the patient through a face shield that is so foggy that beads of condensation are dripping from the shield. He can barely see as he inserts a cannula into a main artery. Got it. Thank god. We rush off to change our sweat-soaked scrubs.

In one twelve-hour shift, I could change in and out of PPE ten times.

Don on. Work.

Doff off. Break.

Don on. Work.

Uh, I need to pee. Doff off.

Don on. Work.

Doff off. Break.

Don on. Work.

Doff off. Break.

Don on. Work.

Doff off. Shower and home time. I’ve got to be quick, there’s only one shower. I need to shower before I get in the car. I will shower again once I get home before I kiss my babies.

It’s my family I worry about the most.

At home, I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror. There are red marks everywhere. My face is burning. Angry acne blooms across my chin, memories of being a teen. I touch the deep welt on my nose and tears prick my eyes.

I’m done, I can’t do this again tomorrow. But I will. We’re already short staffed. I can’t call in sick. I’d be letting the team down.

The next morning at 5:45am, I wake up to my alarm instead of a text. That must mean no COVID ICU today. Sweet relief!

At 6:01 I’m sipping my coffee in the kitchen when my phone lights up: ‘Sorry for the late text, you’re working in COVID today.’

My heart races. Here we go again. The donning on—but also the aloneness of my patients.

Once, before COVID, I held a woman’s hand as she was dying because her family were too frightened to see her that way. I couldn’t let her die alone. I promised to sit by her side, as long as it took. I wept, not because death was new to me, but because the thought of her dying alone was unbearable. At the last moment her husband came in and drew her hand from mine.

With COVID it’s different. There is no last skin on skin moment.


Let that word sink in.

Alone. And in pain.

COVID and now other frightening news.

A new cancer diagnosis. Alone.

A major surgery. Alone.

The doctors can do nothing for you. Alone.

We FaceTime our patients’ families these days. I apologise over the phone to yet another family member who cries because they can’t see their loved one.

I feel their frustration.

I cry too.

I get angry too.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I say.

Luckily, even in these times, there are some circumstances in which we can allow visitors, when someone is unlikely to recover and when someone is imminently dying.

How lucky.

You can come and visit your family member, the one you love whom you haven’t seen in three weeks, because now they are dying. But the three weeks that you didn’t have with them because of the pandemic? You can’t get them back. Tomorrow you might have to say goodbye. Again, I’m so sorry.

I love my job as an ICU nurse. Like, really, really love it. Nursing is what I was born to do. It’s what I’ve always done.

Of course, it’s a tough job. You see people die. You see people at their most sick, their most scared. Despite that, or maybe because of that, I love it. It’s a privilege.

But I liked it a lot more when we weren’t in a pandemic.

These days I’ve been fit tested for a perfect mask (or three) and now my nose doesn’t bruise or bleed. It’s tight, it’s uncomfortable, my skin hates it, but I’m safe. I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve got all that sweaty PPE to protect me. I’m thankful for these things.

And despite being bone tired, I’m ready for anything that this pandemic can throw at me, at us.

That’s my job.