When I first thought of becoming a nurse, I held tight to all the stereotypical and simplistic images of nursing I knew. I am ashamed I never thought much further than the patient in a hospital bed. I remember looking at the walls of our career teacher’s office at school, covered in faded yellow and orange posters with job suggestions such as teaching and nursing, with no sense of the future into which nursing might expand. Yet my career has been varied in ways I could never have imagined. I have walked the floors of nursing homes, outpatient clinics, infusion centres, angiography suites and high dependency units. I have comforted wheezing toddlers and dying grandfathers, defibrillated hearts and packed cavernous wounds, and held so many anxious hands.
It seems ironic that the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has moved me further away from the hospital bed than ever before: working as a contact tracer I have been following patients into their homes and into their lives. Contact tracing has been the best and worst job I have ever had.
I jokingly told my nursing friends I was born to contact trace and they smiled. I suspect my nosiness has been irritating at times in the past. But I know how to ask a question and keep asking until I get an answer. I can convince people to tell me where they have been, who they have met when they shouldn’t have, who they are sleeping with, who their drug dealer is. I can cope with silence and tears. My own tears were never far away in this job.
The need to be cruel shocked me. I still feel the weight of the grief and loneliness of the newly widowed grandmother who I separated from her family due to a COVID exposure: it meant she spent her first night without her husband by herself. I locked up families with young children in tiny apartments for weeks. I called many businesses to tell them that they were an exposure site and they must close, knowing that call could shut
them forever. I made Year 12 students miss exams. I sent people into hotel quarantine, knowing they would struggle. I authorised the closure of the local fish and chip shop, large apartment complexes, shopping centres and even country towns.
My naiveté and privileged life have caught me out a few times. Despite my long career in nursing, hearing the reality of some people’s existence was horrifying. Households already facing poverty and addiction and domestic violence and unemployment and chronic illness now had to face COVID as well. I remember a woman who needed us to help her overturn an apprehended violence order on her husband. He had contracted COVID and she knew he had nowhere else to go. I remember the international student who caught COVID just doing their job who now no longer had one. The single mother who had no-one to look after her children when she was admitted to hospital with COVID. And the families we locked down who told us they had no food or nappies in the house. Many times, I overheard a colleague quietly order and pay for food for a family in need themselves. But you didn’t hear about that in the press conferences.
Isolation does funny things to people. In the first weeks, we tried to call or send a message to our COVID cases and close contacts every day. Sometimes it felt as if people were waiting by the phone: you could hear their loneliness drip out with every word. Some grew attached to a specific contact tracer and only wanted to talk to them. Others avoided our calls or couldn’t get off the phone fast enough. Many got angry.
Contact tracing is all about the detail. Contact tracing is all about the speed. Sometimes we did one well and not the other. Contact tracing kept me awake at night, every night.
Contact tracing was part of my every waking hour. I was either at work, or at home thinking about my work, or watching the press conferences about my work, or talking to friends and acquaintances who wanted either to praise or complain about my work. Or often both.
At times, it was hard not to feel responsible for the rising COVID numbers in Melbourne. I thought about what I might have missed or what outbreak I could have prevented. But I know that having this job was an incredible privilege. Each time I picked up the phone and started a contact tracing interview I was so very grateful for the willingness of people to open up and share their every movement, to let me pick apart every piece of their lives in order to, perhaps, save someone else’s.