Women in our maternity service were suddenly plunged into a terrifying new reality when COVID arrived—no partners or support people to attend clinics or ultrasounds. Rumours abounded: partners wouldn’t be allowed to attend their own child’s birth; mothers would be separated from their babies if they were sick with COVID; partners would have only two hours to visit in the hospital after birth—and there would be no other visitors at all, including their own children.
Clinics were changed to telehealth in a bid to reduce through-traffic and the risk of exposure to COVID. Breastfeeding appointments were done over the phone.
Our home visits, which would normally involve one to two hours of visiting, became chats over the phone, followed by a quick race inside—fully masked and shielded—to hurriedly weigh babies and check women’s physical healing and wounds. We couldn’t stay to watch or assist with breastfeeds.
We were physically exhausted from the constant high levels of stress, what seemed to be longer working hours than ever, and sleepless nights worrying about the pandemic and where life would take us.
We were sore from wearing poorly fitted N95 face masks. The ‘one size fits all policy’ meant we had to wear them no matter how bruised our noses and cheeks became. We were told we had to wear them for four hours, during which time we weren’t allowed to remove them for a drink or a toilet break. This led to dehydration and compounded our exhaustion. We had to wear face shields too—and the compacted foam bruised our foreheads and made them raw. It was hot work. It was also de-humanising—impossible for our consumers to see us, let alone hear us properly or connect with us.
Our care was disjointed and it must have seemed cold and harsh to our consumers. They were so very vulnerable—pregnant or having recently given birth—and now had to manage it all with minimal assistance from us and no support from their family and friends.
For many staff it was also lonely. I sent my own children to their father and grandparents, trying to shield them from my work in a busy public hospital. I saw them only two or three times in five weeks, and then only from a distance. I could almost feel my heart break when I dropped past to see my sons at their father’s home and I had to tell my youngest that he couldn’t cuddle me or even come near. At my parents’ place, I was given a seat at the opposite end of the verandah so I could safely distance myself from my daughters. The plate and mug that I used would sit there for the required three days before my parents would take them inside to wash.
It was unquestionably a difficult time. We burned out, and our staff left in great flocks, too exhausted and worn out to think about coming back.
Yet many of us still remain. The burnout and trauma of the time are slowly receding and we are slowly embracing our new normal.