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(without notation)
Public aged care, acute care
Regional Victoria

When I started as an enrolled nurse trainee in 2019, I was freshly seventeen years old. Excited for something new, I had just commenced my first rotation in a regional aged care facility when we had an influenza outbreak. We shut down, no visitors in or out, full PPE, and the residents confined to their rooms. I remember thinking, ‘This is serious, probably the most serious infection risk I will deal with for a while.’

I was wrong.

By March 2020, COVID had been in the news for a few months. Melbourne had just shut down for the first time, and we had been told that very morning that, although universities had shut down, our courses would continue in person and we were expected to attend. It took another six hours to receive the email saying our classes had been suspended until they could figure out how to continue teaching us.

We continued to work through our rotations at our designated aged care facilities. We were cautious. Everything was changing. Ironically, we had watched the movie Contagion for our infectious diseases unit a year earlier and it was becoming worryingly real.

Studying online was difficult. I never did well with online learning and I missed catching up with everyone. Our laboratory days were strict and we were given individual time slots to attend. Some activities were amended so contact was not required, and some became self-directed from home.

Placements were exciting as they were an opportunity to leave the house, but driving through the empty streets to and from work was haunting. The cars on the roads belonged to nurses and other essential workers—they appeared before a change of shift and then the roads were abandoned again.

It was August 2020 before I first came into contact with COVID. I had just changed rotations, when I received a call saying I had to isolate because I was a close contact at the previous facility. I remember being scared to tell the nurse unit manager at my new facility that I may have infected her facility too. It was protocol, and she understood that, but a lot was unknown at this time and I was worried I had spread the virus to vulnerable people. I isolated in my room at home, cordoned off in my own space while my family kept to a separate section of the house.

By the end of 2020, people were slowly realising this was not going to be over quickly. After five lockdowns, I was numb to it all. I remember being at work one morning when Premier Daniel Andrews spoke at a press conference. Everyone froze. The nurses gathered around the TV as another lockdown was announced. Then they just went back to work. It wasn’t new, nothing had changed, so we just continued working while the world shut down again.

I wondered, was this going to be my only introduction to nursing?

I listened to my patients explain how they felt alone, isolated from their families, cared for by faceless nurses and doctors who couldn’t even share a comforting smile.

Despite working with a team, I wouldn’t recognise my colleagues in the street without a mask. We came to work alone, we ate on our breaks in separate rooms at separate times, and we drove home alone, to then socially distance from our own families because of the risk of bringing the virus home from work.

I have now completed my diploma and my enrolled nurse graduate program and have started the final year of my Bachelor of Nursing. All the while, COVID has been the one consistent presence. I have not experienced a day of nursing when COVID was not present in everything I did. I didn’t do things ‘due to COVID’. I did them because they were routine. Rapid antigen testing was as regular as daily observations.

For a lot of nurses, the decreasing of COVID signifies their nursing careers returning to normal. But for a lot of other nurses like me, it signifies our careers changing. I don’t remember a time where we didn’t wear a mask at work. I don’t remember the way visitors used to enter facilities and wards, or if they were processed at all. The regional hospital where I now work has only just returned to surgical masks instead of N95 face masks. Everyone is excited, but it feels wrong to me to have so little on my face after three years.

COVID will never be gone. It will sit there, inserted into paperwork and lab work protocols as a reminder of what we faced and overcame. But imagine what the next generation of nurses will bring to the table with a whole pandemic under their belt!

Resilience? Adaptability? Courage? I can’t wait to find out.