In 2020, I was in my graduate year as an enrolled nurse at a private hospital in metropolitan Melbourne. I was working on the general surgical ward when a call came out for nurses to go to a specific ward as they were bringing in COVID-19 patients. I volunteered.
My adrenaline was pumping when I arrived. It was chaos. There was a sea of healthcare professionals hurrying around, talking, retrieving equipment, donning PPE. There was a focussed energy, a heightened sense of urgency. I felt completely lost. I had no idea what to do and I was scared. I was allocated to the Red Zone where there were COVID-positive patients whom the government had recently retrieved from aged care facilities.
I was given no handover because the ambulance crew had not been given one when they had collected their patients. I had a few folders with names, but no idea which folders matched which patients.
I was shaking as I donned all the PPE.
It was hard to see.
It was hard to breathe.
I remember feeling that I was about to walk into an area that was highly infectious, that the air would be different.
When I finally stepped over the red line on the floor, I felt acutely present. I could hear my breathing, feel the scrunching noise of my gown, the claustrophobia of gloves, mask and shield on my face. The sweat starting to build up inside those layers.
That first day, most patients I cared for had dementia as well as COVID. I explained to them everything I was doing—washing, pad changes, turning, feeding—but I often didn’t get a response because most of them were non-verbal. I talked anyway. Held their hand. Made lots of eye contact. If this was my loved one, this is how I would want them to be treated.
I spoke to a son on the phone and put it on speaker for his mum to hear his voice while he spoke to her. I told the son, ‘Your mum is in good hands, we will take care of her.’ I could hear him crying. She died the next day.
One morning, a patient I was caring for showed acute respiratory distress. The oxygen levels in his blood were low and he was breathing rapidly. He was agitated and distressed, and I did all I could to try and comfort and settle him. I inserted a small device into his abdomen after speaking with the doctor. When she arrived on the ward, we administered medication through the device to ease his pain and distress—which it did. The doctor phoned the family, and they were able to come and say their goodbyes in time. He died later that afternoon. It was a very distressing experience. The family had lost another family member to COVID the week before.
This situation happened several times over the month I was on the COVID ward. I would insert a device for administering medication, a doctor would chart what was needed, and I would deliver the medication to settle the patient. I spoke to them, cared for them, made them comfortable, tried to reassure them. They often passed in the next twenty-four hours.
I could see when patients were within their last day or two of life; I could tell by their breathing. It required effort, and the patient could be agitated, fidgety. When the medication was administered, they settled, and their breathing slowed. Then, nature would take its course and their bodies would gradually shut down.
As I finished on the COVID ward, I hoped that I had made a small difference to my patients’ quality of life in their final days.
And…I hope my family is proud of me.