The thing most people do not realise when they reflect on the experiences of healthcare staff during the pandemic is that we were not just staff—we were also the families of people living in residential aged care and patients ourselves.
I was a registered nurse tasked with providing infection control training and support in a residential aged care facility in late July 2020.
I have been a nurse for forty years. I have worked in theatre, in acute surgical wards, in small regional and bush nursing hospitals. I have worked in disability with people with complex health needs and in recent times in community and residential aged care. I have sat with a grandma while her beloved granddaughter delivered a stillborn baby and comforted more people through grief and terrible loss than I can remember. I have worked shifts where there were no staff and no breaks and the levels of exhaustion were soul destroying.
I have never worked shifts that were as difficult, traumatising and heartbreaking as the shifts in the first five days of the COVID outbreak at that aged care facility. Ultimately, they lost nearly fifty per cent of their residents.
Confusion, no resources, no staff, no guidance. People calling out for care and attention and no-one to respond. People found to be seriously unwell having been isolated in their rooms and unable to call for help. Practice guidance that was so generic as to be useless. We shuffled deckchairs.
We thought we had three COVID-positive residents. After testing, we found we had twenty-nine. The health department told us to assume everyone was positive. That was just the residents. Staff, when they did arrive, were unskilled bodies rather than trained staff who knew what they were doing. God love them for volunteering, but they could not help much.
It was on the fifth day in the facility that I asked about plans to test staff. I had not been tested but I had clearly been exposed. I was informed that this was my responsibility. I had a test on the Monday and received a positive result on the Thursday. So, eight days after I first presented at the residential aged care facility for work, I tested positive for COVID.
My family and I did not panic. We knew this was likely. We had an area in the house set up so I could isolate. I had trained my husband to be my carer. How bad could it be? I was healthy and fit.
It was bad. The COVID virus was attacking my kidneys. I went to the emergency department, stayed overnight and was sent home the next day. The following day I was back in hospital with bilateral pneumonia. My illness worsened. I was diagnosed with pancreatitis, hepatitis, myocarditis and who knows what else.
I recovered somewhat over time, worked briefly, but long COVID has me in its grasp. The pancreatitis returns. Everything aches. My short-term memory, new learning and problem-solving skills are compromised. The fatigue is intense and my husband has put handrails in the garden so I can walk to the letterbox. I take the short drive to the local shops only once a week. I can function in the bubble that is my home, but not outside. I have now had almost two years on WorkCover because I contracted the disease during my work in the aged care facility.
Just days before I was assigned to the aged care facility, we were notified that there was an outbreak of COVID in the aged care residence where my mother-in-law was located. Two days after this notification, we were told that a public health service was staffing the facility and we were asked for an advanced care plan for our family member. Just like that, the facility became an early epicentre for COVID in aged care. It was now featuring on the news.
So, concurrent with being unwell, we were trying to get information from the facility where my mother-in-law was. Residents were being transferred to another site. No-one told us this or if my mother-in-law was included in the transfer. Getting information was very difficult; trying to reassure my father-in-law was worse.
The nurses caring for me were also being rostered in the nursing home and caring for my mother-in-law. Bless them; they could give me updates about how she was doing. Many were graduates, students and nurses who prior to the pandemic worked on a geriatric evaluation and management ward. Every day they attended some level of training to cover off on the ever-changing management of the pandemic.
Here is what I know.
There are no words for the gratitude I feel toward every single nurse who looked after me and my mother-in-law. Exhausted, overwhelmed and unsure, they just did what was asked. They got me home to my husband and family. They sat with me, reassured me and when I needed a negative COVID test to go home, they refreshed the computer screen every other minute so they would not miss the pathology result that would allow me to be discharged.
I spent five days at the nursing home where I got COVID and the memory of those days still has the capacity to bring me to tears. For the horror of it. For the pain and the bewilderment of the residents. The terror of their families, powerless to help or comfort loved ones. I cannot begin to imagine the experience of the staff who endured this for months.
Two-and-a-half years later, I have been unable to return to work and my health is ruined. All this time later, it is hard to find words to make other people understand what it was like. How hopeless I felt. How helpless I felt. How years of experience did not seem to help. How hard it is when the trauma of our experience is not acknowledged by others.
No, my mother-in-law never did get COVID. Yes, the whole experience is like a bad dream that is vague in its detail but still has the power to frighten me.
And, definitely yes, l say to the staff who cared for us and all the other COVID patients: I love every one of you and remember every one of you. We will never forget you and what you did for us.