I have always loved a challenge and the COVID-19 pandemic was no different. Although the unknown was at times overwhelming, the urgency and pace at which we needed to work didn’t allow me—or any of us—to sit for long in fear and uncertainty.
Early in the pandemic, I was asked to co-lead the COVID surge workforce team for the Department of Health. The role involved looking at the clinical workforce and identifying where we might need to create new models of care, change the traditional scope of practice, and introduce new workforces to meet the demand COVID-19 was predicted to make on our healthcare system.
We were closely monitoring what was happening overseas and learning from what other countries had experienced, but it was still like building a jigsaw without having the edges or the picture on the box. We couldn’t see the end game, but we knew every piece we connected would be a step forward.
As a leader, I felt my job was also to instil a level of calm across the sector—to reassure other leaders that we had a plan, that we were listening, and that we would be proactive and responsive.
What soon became evident to me was the ability nurses and midwives had to be mobilised. Whether it was upskilling to work in a high dependency or intensive care unit, setting up and leading community testing centres and state vaccination sites, or leading the response across private residential aged care, nurses and midwives were at the forefront.
They were professional, adaptable, responsive and practical. They brought passion, care, respect, agility and the capacity to solve complex problems while working in environments that were rapidly changing. They were not heroes, but they were one of the cornerstones of the pandemic response upon which the whole health system and community relied. They worked unbelievably hard, often under enormous duress, with their own personal doubts, fears, resources and responsibilities to juggle too. I am incredibly grateful for their courage and commitment.
I also found experiences confronting. As entire cohorts of staff were furloughed from private residential aged care facilities, I took on a hands-on role. I had been a nurse for more than fifteen years, mostly working in specialist cancer care. I had not held a bedside clinical role for some time and I had never worked in residential aged care. But I was soon reminded that the fundamentals of nursing are incredibly transferable and that every day, wherever they are, nurses and midwives respond to changing environments, bring new and novel treatments to the bedside, and advocate ardently for patients, clients, families and carers.
What I saw, along with the many other nurses who joined the aged care response, cannot be unseen. Memories of the chaos unfolding are still etched in my mind and, as a senior leader, I felt a huge sense of responsibility that has stayed with me.
As people, I know all nurses and midwives were affected in different ways by what they went through. Some have left their profession, many have stayed. Some have found new roles to love, others have returned to old ones. Most, for one reason or another, have had their views on healthcare changed forever.
I have never been prouder to be a nurse and hold a position that represents the nurses and midwives who care for the Victorian community. Through this once-in-a-lifetime event, I’ve gained a new insight into the vulnerability of my colleagues and become much more comfortable sharing mine. No undergraduate or postgraduate degree has ever included pandemic leadership!
Now, as we now turn to life post COVID-19, I have a newly lit fire in my belly. I am more committed than ever to driving the positive change needed to ensure that nurses and midwives have long and fulfilling careers at the bedside and that the nursing and midwifery professions are front and centre in our healthcare system planning—always. We’ve shown what we can do when we are.