Of course they were afraid. We all were. But despite their fear, they stepped out of their comfort zones every day and met the challenges before them head on.
The idea to publish this book came from the stories I was hearing during the COVID-19 pandemic phase. I worked as a nurse for twenty-six years and I’ve been secretary of the ANMF Victorian Branch for twenty-one years. Never had I heard stories like these.
They were raw, real and haunting. Members cried when they told them. I cried when I listened. I knew our members were resilient and dedicated, but this was something else.
Nurses and midwives spoke of work that was demanding and relentless, carried out under great duress and in full PPE, with their patients only able to see their eyes. Of holding mobile devices up to sick and dying patients so loved ones could stay in touch, and all too often, say their last words. Of taking extra shifts to support their often fatigued and overwhelmed colleagues.
They were seeing and doing things they had not seen or done before. Every day, experienced nurses and midwives were being challenged to apply their knowledge and skills to something completely different. Nurse and midwife managers were struggling to support their teams, doing their best to lead by example though many were new to the roles themselves. Student nurses and midwives were joining the workforce in the hundreds, swapping the relative safety of their classrooms for high-risk workplaces.
Of course they were afraid. We all were. But despite their fear, they stepped out of their comfort zones every day and met the challenges before them head on. Healthcare in the time of COVID needed new ways of thinking and doing. It demanded creativity, flexibility and dexterity—and our members and their colleagues delivered.
They made personal sacrifices—often moving away from their families so they could keep caring for the community as COVID spread and their risk of exposure intensified.
Many returned from leave or retirement to help, undertaking refresher or upskilling training so they could assist where the need was greatest. Others took on completely new roles.
By default, almost all became enforcers of the restrictions that were put in place to protect the community and so often found themselves on the receiving end of community anger and blame.
Many got sick. One nurse, Jill Dempsey, who worked in a metropolitan emergency department, died—a devastating loss for all who loved her and a sad and sobering reminder for every healthcare worker of the very real risks they were facing.
Amazingly, many found a way to focus on the positive, relishing newfound opportunities to innovate and change.
As our union listened to the stories of members around Victoria, we were striving to get supports in place, working with the Andrews government, the Department of Health and health services across the state to make sure our members were protected, housed and financially and emotionally supported and to ensure policy and practice changes were implemented quickly and safely.
Since COVID reached our state, almost three million Victorians have contracted and recovered from the virus. Another 7,637 have tragically died. While the pandemic phase may be over, COVID continues to make its presence felt. The most recent figures released by the state’s Chief Health Officer show 6,452 COVID cases and 44 COVID-related deaths were reported in Victoria for the week 28 April to 5 May 2023. As I write, 295 COVID patients remain in Victorian hospitals. Sixteen patients are in intensive care—four on ventilators. Health services are also now dealing with the consequences of delayed care for people with non-COVID health matters.
After three long years, our members are beginning to reflect. Many are not ready to share their experiences—they need more time to process what they went through. Some are ready, and their stories are here in this book or on our companion website. They will now form part of the historical record.
We hope these stories will help the community understand that their nurses, midwives and carers are more than just expert health professionals. They are people too—and parents, grandparents, carers, partners, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters and friends. Like us all, they dealt with the impact of COVID on their personal lives. Then they turned up to work and dealt with it again—and again.
We hope their stories will help our policy and decision makers see clearly how the decisions they made played out in healthcare settings across the state and why it is so important to have a truly integrated health system.
We also hope they will show what’s possible as we recognise and learn from the wonderful initiatives nurses and midwives implemented to keep health services running smoothly and safely.
Mostly though, we hope these stories will honour the contribution of our members. We know they don’t want to be celebrated or seen as heroes, but they do want to be recognised, and I hope this collection does that.
I would personally like to acknowledge the courage and commitment of all Victorian nurses, midwives and carers. I thank you for your service. And I thank all members who contributed to this collection for entrusting your stories to us. I hope we’ve done you proud, as you have us.