‘The university is now closed. After this lecture you have to go home. Everything will be online.’ It was March 2020. I was a nursing student on clinical placement in Adelaide. Orientation Week was just over and I’d gone into the uni where I’d caught up with a couple of people. We were gossiping about what we’d done over the summer when the announcement came through.
I returned to Melbourne. I took literally the last plane out of Adelaide to Melbourne. There were around fifty police in this tiny departure area, but I was allowed onto the plane because I was a nursing student. Melbourne Airport when I arrived was like World War Z. It was surreal—everything was shut, the long corridors were empty.
We got home and the lockdowns began. Much of my study was online, but I did have a permit to travel further than the five-kilometre limit so I could attend fortnightly face-to-face practical sessions at uni.
Then COVID gave me my opportunity to work—and then some. I received my first healthcare job as a RUSON, a registered undergraduate student of nursing, in a large metropolitan teaching hospital in June 2022. I was excited, full of dread, full of fear as I went off to get a proper fitting for the face masks I would need. In my role I ran errands, made beds, tested for blood sugar levels, and ran to pathology now and then. It was always busy and at the end of the night, if I had managed to take my break, I considered myself lucky.
I later worked on a COVID isolation ward. The forty-bed ward had ten nurses plus other staff, so the nursing ratio was around one nurse for four patients. The entire ward was filled with recovering COVID-19 patients. They were mostly elderly, thin and grey, and were coughing and gasping for breath. Their oxygen levels and respiratory rates were poor. Many had other health problems and needed other care as well. One of the patients was in her sixties. She had come in from country Victoria and had a rockabilly look about her with her bottle-blonde hair and denim jacket. But she didn’t have much rock ‘n’ roll in her when I next saw her. She was wearing hospital pyjamas and was ill—and bored.
On her own in a beige-walled isolation room, her only company the daytime television, she said she couldn’t go on anymore. She rued the fact she hadn’t been vaccinated. When you’re ill, the vaccine won’t cure you, but I told her that of course she could go on. I gave her ice chips and told her stories about people and the weather outside. In the end, she had a month and a half in that room bored out of her brain. When she went home she had long COVID, but at least she got home.
I personally handled around ten deaths related to COVID. In November 2022, we had two Friday nights in a row when a patient died of the virus. Both were male, both in their eighties, and both on my ward. We were short staffed and it was up to two other RUSONs and me to prepare the men’s bodies for their journey from the ward. We took out the cannulas that had pumped painkillers into their bodies and withdrew the catheters that had carried waste away. We washed them with warm cloths, covered them with shrouds and placed them in plastic body bags like you see on TV.
In some of the deaths on the ward, we had families coming in to say farewell and we watched as they cried out in grief. When these two men died, I had a bad moment. I asked myself if they’d still be alive if I’d put them in different rooms, or if I’d nagged staff to watch them more closely, or if—not my fault—the Morrison government had bothered to get vaccines into the country earlier. At home, some of my dreams became zombie nightmares and my GP talked with me about depression.
By early 2023, I was working night shifts—still as a RUSON. COVID started to subside. We had begun treating patients with remdesivir, an antiviral that reduced the spread of the virus and eased the aggressive symptoms of the disease, like pneumonia and the hacking cough. Remdesivir helped shorten the length of stay for the sicker residents from fourteen days to seven and it made nursing a lot better. We no longer had to provide such intensive care or wear the full array of PPE. The situation for everyone, including healthcare staff, also eased because, by then, around ninety-five per cent of the Melbourne population had been vaccinated at least once.
I learnt a few things through COVID. One—and note to self—try not to get into arguments with trolling anti-vaxxers. The arguments are irrational and telling someone, ‘You don’t know shit about it!’ is actually not that constructive. Two, get vaccinated and be safe. As winters come and go, and festivals and footy seasons come and go with them, we need to keep vigilant. Lastly, I now know a lot about respiratory illnesses. I have seen the success of human care and science working together. I am both a nurse who puts people first and a nerd who loves the science, and I intend to combine both when I graduate.