Friday 24 July 2020—it was an email I’ll never forget seeing—my nurse unit manager with the news that no-one wanted: we were going to be taking COVID-positive patients from the nursing home outbreak. Our ward would be locked down and we would be isolated from the rest of the hospital.
Sunday was the first day. I worked an afternoon shift. I remember so vividly closing the doors to the ward for the first time—the feeling of going into battle and not knowing if I’d come out alive. The ward was set up ready to go. Staff were in PPE and we waited for the first patient to arrive.
We received six patients that night, all from the same nursing home. They were malnourished, dehydrated and had pressure wounds that would have been developing for months.
One patient was so hungry and malnourished that he ate three full meals that night! This continued the whole time he was with us and by the time he had recovered, he had put on so much weight, he was almost unrecognisable!
We knew very little about these patients apart from their names and birth dates. We had phone numbers for their next of kin, so, along with our physician, we called families and spent hours on the phone getting as much detail as we could while also informing the families of their relatives’ whereabouts and conditions. Unfortunately, the families had not been told if their loved ones had passed away or if they had been transferred to hospital for treatment.
We put ourselves in their shoes and made these patients our families. We treated them like our grandparents and gave them the love and attention they so desperately needed. Each patient was re-swabbed on arrival and intravenous fluids were administered as soon as possible to set them on the best road to recovery.
Walking out of work that night I cried. I knew to expect the worst, but it was far worse than I expected—and it continued for many weeks after that.
We received roughly forty patients in the first few days. They were swabbed and, if they were positive, they stayed in our ward. If they weren’t, they went over the hallway to the suspected COVID ward. Here, they would spend fourteen days in isolation in case they tested positive on future swabs—they were swabbed on days one, three, seven, ten and fourteen.
By the end of the first week, we had a full thirty-bed ward of COVID-positive patients. There were only two or three who didn’t need assistance so our shifts were filled with patient hygiene including washes and pad changes, feeding, medications and spending time with patients and families on FaceTime.
Every day we did twelve-hour shifts. We did double shifts, starting early and finishing late. We picked up shifts on our days off. The work was exhausting—it was repetitive and time-consuming. It was also rewarding. The patients were grateful for the care and attention we were providing and they showed it by smiling at us.
Although we had met with management months before and asked for PPE and scrubs to wear while we were caring for COVID-positive patients, it took us a while to get them, so we wore surgical masks for the best part of the first week.
The PPE, when it arrived, was horrendous. We got pressure injuries on our faces and behind our ears from the N95 face masks; we had to change our scrubs on every break because we would sweat so much that we compromised the plastic gowns. The dehydration was next level—it didn’t matter how much you drank. And the weekly PCR tests were torturous.
Because of the patients’ high-care needs, we had improved nurse-to-patient ratios of one nurse to three patients. This meant we needed more nurses than were available. We were lucky enough to have staff come from other wards and hospitals to help, but with eleven or twelve nurses testing positive for COVID by the end of the first fortnight we needed even more staff.
I, and many of my colleagues, ended up in hotel accommodation because we had family members who were ‘high risk’ or because we just didn’t want to risk spreading COVID to any of our loved ones. Being freshly married, then thrown into lockdown, then separated for health reasons was beyond what either my husband or I could have expected. I have never felt so alone.
Thank god for all those who supported us! From the start, the kitchen staff provided us with meals, not only for work but also to take home to our families. Nurses from around the hospital cooked us cakes and slices to eat on our breaks. Local businesses sent us gifts to show their appreciation.
This took such a load off for so many of us and made such a big impact. We felt seen and appreciated, despite all the negativity that was around at the time, and we were so grateful.
I truly don’t think people ever totally understood what it was like to be a nurse and I’m sure some still don’t. The past three years really did throw everything at us!