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Virginia—Registered nurse
Day surgery
Metropolitan Melbourne

I kept a gratitude journal during the pandemic. I had plenty to be grateful for. I got to work and be with my team, unlike so many of my friends who were either not working or working from home and going slowly crazy within their four walls. I gave thanks for my family, my dogs, friends, the trees and birds outside my bedroom window, for my salary when others had lost their jobs. I was even grateful for Dan Andrews.

The diary helped, but I still experienced stress and found myself at the edge of burnout. I was uneducated about COVID and pandemics when it all started. I was working as an acting nurse unit manager in the day surgery and endoscopy department in a private hospital. I knew where the kit for a suspect SARS patient was still kept, but SARS had come and gone without needing to use the kit once so surely this would be the same.

Then the world imploded.

Borders were shut. PPE was being counted and there wasn’t enough. Emails were coming out on an almost daily basis about changing working conditions. PPE requirements in the public hospitals where many of our doctors also worked increased. Not so in our hospital, so tensions ran high.

Many employees started working from home when lockdowns commenced—but not nurses or supermarket workers. We had a new title: essential workers. Non-essential elective surgery was cancelled. Endoscopy was still operating, as were necessary day surgeries, but orthopaedic and other surgeries considered non-urgent were not. Some wards closed and many theatre staff did not have work. I never thought I would see the day when nurses did not have work. Many of our casuals looked for work elsewhere, particularly outside of Victoria, and many of the international nurses went home. A surge workforce was being created, and nurses were asking to be part of it.

The knowledge of COVID-19 was rapidly developing and being shared. Patients had to have negative PCR tests and isolate before procedures. Staff could only come into the hospital each day after being temperature-checked and declaring we were symptom free. If we had symptoms, we couldn’t work for two weeks. Then there were the close contacts—so many close contacts of patients, colleagues, family. If staff with positive tests ate in the tearoom, the staff in the tearoom were considered close contacts and could not work. Any exposure had to be investigated. I became a counsellor for many, as others were for me.

Debates about how the virus was transmitted continued. Anaesthetists said COVID was spread by aerosols, fine particles suspended in the air. When this was finally accepted, our PPE started getting stolen, so I had to dole out the correct number of N95 face masks for my teams at the start of each day. Toilet paper was also disappearing from patients’ rooms. The world was going mad!

And I was going mad too. I did no exercise, none, because I was so angry at the people I saw out walking who were not complying with the social distancing or mask requirements. It was easier to keep away from people and deep breathe.

After work, I stripped off my clothes on my verandah and ran into the bathroom to shower before I spoke to anyone. I did not want to infect my family. My husband had multiple sclerosis and I was terrified I would pass it onto him and he might die. I ended up moving into the spare bedroom so I could try to sleep at night. Many nights I would sit in a darkened room to decompress from all that had happened during the day, and then I’d see the texts coming in advising of sick leave and unfilled shifts.

During this period, I was appointed nurse unit manager, but the timing could not have been worse. There was no time for orientation or development. I had only one associate manager to share the load of two wards. I remained clinical and worked long hours to cover staff sick leave and the nurses who had left, taking advantage of the opportunities arising from COVID-19 to get their dream jobs.

After two years, I was approaching burnout and I stepped down. I felt I was betraying my team and carried tremendous guilt as I walked away, but I took a long-needed break, learning how to sleep again and working towards becoming fit. I felt like I had aged ten years during the pandemic.

Looking back now I can’t believe what happened. COVID’s still around but, at least for the moment, it’s nothing in comparison. I remain grateful for the good things in my life, and even for the challenges that help me develop. The relationships forged during that time will never be forgotten, but many of us have moved apart, perhaps needing fresh starts to reintroduce normalcy into our lives. I remain a nurse but see nursing as a profession that will never be appropriately remunerated or respected. I would never suggest to my kids they should give it a go.

Yes, I am jaded.