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Surgical, COVID testing, palliative care
Metropolitan Melbourne

The verbal and physical abuse I and my colleagues endured during COVID has tested my faith in humanity to the limits. It has, at times, made me consider leaving the nursing profession, however it is people like Anne (not her real name) who remind me that humanity will always be among us.

I met Anne not long after the virus came to Australia. I had recently commenced my graduate year as a registered nurse at a public metropolitan hospital and was completing my final surgical rotation when COVID hit. I was assigned to care for Anne, who had cancer. After the doctors left, I stayed with her as she processed the outcome of her operation and a poor prognosis. She’d had surgery to remove her cancer and had a hole (called a stoma) cut in her stomach for a colostomy bag. I looked after her frequently in the days following her surgery. I taught her how to care for her stoma and supported her as she began to navigate the physical, emotional, and mental changes of having a stoma and the implications of her diagnosis. I remember her watching the news about COVID unfold, the fear she and others in her four-bed bay felt, the fear her loved ones felt, and the fear I and the other nurses felt for this new and then relatively unknown disease. Despite all this, she remained incredibly positive and kind to others. Her resilience was inspiring.

It is hard to remember how life was before COVID, to remember the person I was before. I remember knowing how stretched the public system was; how hard we had to work to keep up with patient demand. As the virus began to spread and we saw it rip through places such as New York and Italy like wildfire, a patient asked me if I thought we would end up like that—with makeshift field hospitals and overflowing dead bodies. I prayed we would not. Australian hospitals prepared for the worst by placing restrictions on surgery and getting patients out of hospitals as swiftly as possible. As we began to see the first patients with COVID enter the hospital, the atmosphere became incredibly tense. For me, this was heightened by the sight of empty beds. It was a frightening calm before the storm.

After finishing my graduate year, I took a contract in the hospital’s COVID swabbing clinic. When the second wave hit Melbourne, the public became hysterical with fear. The number of patients we swabbed each day ballooned overnight. I remember coming onto an afternoon shift and hearing the thrum of patients—every possible space in the clinic was filled—and the queue to enter the clinic was extremely long. I felt like I was entering a war zone. I told myself to stay calm and simply focus on swabbing patients. That was the role I had to play, and the best thing I could do under the circumstances was to remain calm and keep working. We swabbed as fast as we possibly could safely, and it felt like a never-ending sea of people flooding through the clinic, a sea that just got stronger and more out of control as the virus spread.

I built an amazing bond with my colleagues, and we helped each other through that very dark time. We adapted to the chaos. Working in the swabbing clinic felt like being in the eye of the storm—a place of relative calm amid the disarray unfolding throughout the hospital and the wider community. I sometimes thought about Anne, wondered how she was, how COVID had impacted her treatment and, as the months passed, I wondered if she had died.

As a student nurse, I had developed an interest in palliative care. My interest had become heightened by my graduate experience looking after palliative patients. I had planned to gain more acute experience before moving into palliative care, however COVID had changed the entire world in a moment. It had held up the desires and necessities of my heart in sharp relief and, as time went on, I felt myself drawn towards palliative care ever more strongly. I pursued my dream and got a position in the palliative care unit. I knew from my early moments on the ward that I had found the place I was meant to be. Here, nursing was enshrined by love and the giving of dignity at the end of life.

And there was Anne again. One day, I unexpectedly met her on the palliative ward. I came into her room to do some routine checks with another nurse and she immediately recognised me. I was stunned. All I could say in the moment was that I remembered her and that she had done better than the doctors had expected, for it was now more than a year since she had been on the surgical ward. I was so happy that she had had more time than expected.

Being new to the nursing profession is like being on a rollercoaster—our eyes are opened to the most complex situations and indescribable suffering. It breaks down innocence like nothing else in life. Yet it also enshrines us with an indelible wisdom because we bear witness to sacred moments at birth, death and everything in between. As the years have passed and I now find myself an experienced, battle-hardened nurse, I feel like in many ways going through COVID has been another form of loss of innocence for us all— no matter our age, gender, background or nursing experience. As we move towards recovering from the pandemic, I do not think the mark COVID has made on me will ever leave.

I am honoured to have cared for Anne and to have heard her in her last days thanking her loved ones for being a part of her life. COVID has been a nightmare, but it also propelled me towards my calling and for that I am grateful.