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SHELLEY—Registered nurse
Surgical ward turned COVID ward
Metropolitan Melbourne

Coronavirus. What we know now is very different to what we knew back then. A global pandemic with healthcare bravely on the frontline. My ward was the first in Australia to care for COVID patients. We stood together as a team, head to toe in PPE, and faced the multiple challenges COVID presented.

Each wave exceeded the one before it. My ward saw it all. People dying. No visitors allowed. Abuse from family members on the phone. Abuse from patients. Nurses’ faces red raw from N95 face masks. Sweating through our scrubs. We haemorrhaged nurses. They were scared. Then burnt out and exhausted. Yet now, a few years after COVID entered our country, we seem to have made it out the other side. The pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime experience…we hope!

I am a cardiac critical care-trained registered nurse working in a large metropolitan public hospital. COVID had arrived and our premier was enforcing strict rules to help limit the rapid spread of this viral illness. With shops and schools closed, thousands of people were out of work. People were telling me I was lucky to have a secure job. At first, I believed them. Then healthcare started to crumble and we saw the true impact of COVID.

Hand hygiene, gown on,
hand hygiene, N95 face mask on,
hand hygiene, hair net on,
hand hygiene, face shield on,
hand hygiene, gloves on.

Double check yourself, write your name on your face shield with a whiteboard marker, then you’re good to go in.

It was a process.

‘PPE spotters’ became a new role to ensure no-one missed a step donning and doffing.

Gloves off, hand hygiene,

gown off, hand hygiene,

shield off, hand hygiene,

hair net off, hand hygiene,

N95 mask off, hand hygiene.

Then hand hygiene again and again
just to be sure. Wipe your shoes down.
Get changed out of your scrubs.

Initially, we had COVID patients in single rooms. This meant we had to don and doff each time we entered to provide care. It took time. Patients fell and they had to wait for us to protect ourselves first before entering. A patient in cardiac arrest lay there blue and unresponsive while we frantically, yet methodically, donned our PPE.

The nursing homes were hit hard. Soon enough we were full of elderly, frail patients with multiple comorbidities. Complex patients to care for, and now with the added complexity of COVID. Dementia patients were walking out of their isolation rooms, not understanding the importance of protecting others. They would scream, hit and kick us. They would cough in our faces. Many of us were spat on by COVID-positive patients.

When the fear and uncertainty of COVID was at an all-time high, this type of care was very confronting and we had to put all our faith in the PPE we were wearing.

There were no visitors allowed and patients were dying. We were facetiming their families who couldn’t be with them. Holding patients’ hands as they died. We had husbands and wives die together. One week we ran out of body bags. It was physically and emotionally depleting.

Time went on and the cohort of patients changed from the old and frail to young people with no past medical history. We were putting tubes down their throats to help them breathe and they were still dying with COVID. We cared for heavily pregnant women with COVID. Their big bellies impacted their ability to breathe but they couldn’t be placed on their stomachs to breathe better. Many were rushed off to intensive care to have emergency caesarean sections to save mum and baby.

We had the protestors. Antivaxxers. Many were rude to us and refused care. I had a young patient whose oxygen saturations were a low sixty per cent on maximum oxygen therapy. He was turning blue and was taking sixty breaths per minute, rather than the normal twelve to twenty. He was pre-cardiac arrest and the doctors wanted to intubate him to save his life. He refused. He said we were lying to him and that he wasn’t sick. It was baffling.

Initially, I felt very passionate about trying to educate people about the realities of COVID and what we were seeing in healthcare. It was frustrating and exhausting. It also seemed illogical to me that people who refused the COVID vaccine and ended up in hospital for treatment were then happy to receive the new COVID medication therapies. These therapies were also serious new drugs with limited information about them.

But people had made up their own minds and there was no changing that. After everything we’d been through, it was almost offensive, but as health professionals we continued to remain respectful and treat everyone equally. And I continued to remind myself that, as hard as it was, we were very fortunate compared to other places across the world.