EVERYWHERE MAN – Head On

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EVERYWHERE MAN

Stephen—Registered nurse
Emergency department, medical assistance team
Regional Victoria

In early 2019, we had planned a wonderful holiday in Vietnam and Cambodia for February 2020, determined to visit all the sights. Roll on to December 2019. With our holiday looming fast on the calendar, the breaking headlines and news reports were about a flu-like illness that was raging through China. It had everyone the world over in a state of panic.

Do we go or stay at home? This was our greatest concern in the days before departure, but with constant reassurance from our travel agent, we boarded our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. The first few days were amazing as we explored Vietnam, but as our tour progressed the news of the rapid spread of this virus had everyone on edge. There was a growing fear about what was going to happen to our tour. As we travelled along the Mekong River, planned activities were cancelled or we were redirected to a different activity. Finally, as we moored in the Mekong River Delta in Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the authorities stopped our cruise and we were marooned.

Our travel company and the tour director were in a state of panic about what to do with seventy international tourists on a boat in Cambodia. For two days there were constant updates about the virus and the arrangements to get us home. Finally the good news: flights had been secured. Destination—home. We Aussies were loaded onto a small boat, taken to the shoreline, piled onto a bus, escorted to the international airport in Phnom Penh and then loaded onto an aircraft bound for Melbourne via Singapore. (I like to say that we were deported). Twelve hours later, the Australian Government closed the borders and mandatory fourteen-day quarantine periods came into force.

So it was back to work as an associate nurse unit manager in a busy regional Victorian emergency department. The talk was all about the virus. Management was taking advice from the health department. PPE training was being undertaken with gusto in preparation for the onslaught of the virus.

From memory, it was a Sunday in April 2020. I was on an early shift and in charge of the emergency department when the Ambulance Victoria ‘bat phone’ rang: ‘We have a patient with COVID-like symptoms.’ I knew this would happen eventually, but why on my shift and why the first patient? With my pulse rate racing, I met the crew in the ambulance bay. They looked like they were about to blast off into outer space with all the PPE they had on. The patient was escorted across a panicked department into the negative pressure room where they were cared for and from where they were eventually discharged. I believe the ambulance was later transported to Melbourne for decontamination. My, how things have changed since then!

As time went on, there were flights coming into Australia with mandatory quarantine in place. In February 2021, as a medical assistance team member, I spent three weeks at a Darwin centre for public health and infection control. I welcomed international visitors into the air force base and back at the centre where they were observed, swabbed, supplied with meals and given healthcare during their two-week mandatory stay. High-risk and symptomatic arrivals were managed in a separate area to those who were asymptomatic.

Before work every day, there was the compulsory RAT test for all staff members. There was also donning and doffing—and my skills were put under the microscope with a buddy system to check I adhered to the strict national protocols. My time in Darwin concluded with a two-week period of home quarantine, which I completed without issue.

Towards the end of June 2021, with the pandemic raging across the world, a call went out for Australian medical assistance team members to help the Fiji Government with training in infection control, PPE and logistics. I was willing to be selected, was released from work and a week later I was flying to Fiji in a RAAF C-17A Globemaster aircraft with three ambulances parked in the belly of the plane.

During my thirty days in Fiji, we supported staff at a major hospital in Suva and at around thirty small local health facilities, all of them overwhelmed with massive numbers of COVID-positive patients. We were also tasked to train medical and nursing staff, whose numbers were decimated by the virus. The flight home to Brisbane—with about twenty people on board—was followed by fourteen days’ mandatory quarantine in a Brisbane hotel. With a view over the Brisbane River, it wasn’t too bad—but I wouldn’t want to do it again!

Fast forward to 2023, the borders are open and we are living with COVID. I regularly test for the virus even though I have no symptoms, mostly because I work in a high-risk environment and I would hate to be contagious and infect those in my workplace, my community and my home. I did contract COVID during the pandemic and have been fortunate to have no long-lasting health issues.

I feel very privileged to have been a part of an amazing team of people, from my own workplace to the disease control centre in Darwin and the team in Fiji. The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has been a true support for all nurses. Mostly, I am grateful to my family for supporting my endeavours to make a difference.