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Michael—Registered nurse
COVID testing, vaccinations, acute care
Metropolitan Melbourne

I joke that I was a COVID ‘all-rounder’ nurse.

As a casual nurse, I cared for one of Australia’s first COVID patients on a general medical ward. This was before community transmission in Australia. I always suspected the patient was assigned to me because I was the casual bank nurse and the other nurses were afraid to take care of him. I didn’t mind because he was kind, patient and polite—and the biggest perk of all: he could shower himself! He also appeared guarded and anxious, which I attributed to both the lack of general information about COVID and the growing conspiracy theories surrounding the virus at the time.

As a COVID-19 testing nurse, I helped set up the third COVID-19 testing clinic in Victoria. Drive-in clinics and widespread QR scanning were non-existent then, so we wrote progress notes for every patient who presented for a PCR test. A line began to form before we’d completed the set-up. For the next couple of days, we worked from opening to closing, with wait times of around six hours.

When strict eligibility criteria were imposed due to the dwindling number of PCR swabs in the country, my perception of the COVID-19 pandemic and society’s reaction took a dark turn. I dreaded being the ‘triage’ nurse at the front of the clinic because I felt like a punching bag for the public. After a particular confrontation with one woman, I excused myself and headed to the back of the clinic where I was consoled by two colleagues as I sobbed uncontrollably for ten minutes or more. I didn’t think I could continue to work in the clinic but, lo and behold, I came in the next day and for many subsequent shifts.

I alternated shifts between the testing clinic and the front entrance of the hospital where I worked. The aggression from the public was even worse there than at the testing site. But again, I felt obliged to continue for fear of being asked to take annual leave—nursing shifts for pool and casual bank nurses had ground to a halt at that time.

I proceeded to look for a permanent role and gratefully accepted one on a general surgical ward in an outer metropolitan hospital, only to see it later turned into a COVID-19 inpatient unit during Victoria’s second COVID wave. We treated those with pneumonia with antibiotics and we also trialled COVID antivirals, like remdesivir. We helped the physiotherapists with proning—lying patients on their stomachs to help their breathing.

So many of the patients were clinically unstable—COVID patients often deteriorated suddenly. Discharge planning for COVID patients was complicated because we had to consider who they lived with and whether they could take care of themselves at home.

I also worked as a PPE rover and kept track of the bed movements of COVID-19 patients within a large hospital. We maintained a list of all the hospital’s suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients and made sure the proper PPE protocols and isolation requirements were being followed. More often than not, we worked as ‘spotters’, helping the transfer of COVID patients across the hospital by ushering people out of the way. Breaks for food and water were few and far between, and we were confronted with the impatience of some of the hospital units who expected transfers to be faster than was possible.

As a vaccination nurse, I delivered vaccines at public mass vaccination sites like the Sandown Racecourse. I estimate that I immunised a couple of thousand people in all. It was a very exciting time. I was designated with a specific vaccine for the shift—either Pfizer or AstraZeneca at the time—and I would explain the side-effects and treatment information to the patient in my cubicle before administering the vaccine. It was also fun—we got to meet so many different people and had the privilege of playing a part in the vaccination efforts of the nation. Nonetheless, the line of people waiting for appointments was incessant. There was never a moment to spare.

As a vaccination clinical support nurse, I worked with a public health education team to upskill immunisation staff. Initially, we worked only with nurses, but this was broadened to include nursing and medical students, then allied health professionals such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists and dieticians, and eventually ‘limited-scope vaccinators’ who were administrative staff or members of the public who were interested in learning a new skill. Each time the immuniser pool expanded, we were required to tailor our teaching methods and policies. And as senior immunisation nurses, we were often called on to troubleshoot around eligibility criteria and needle phobias.

I now work as a clinical support nurse, mentoring our new graduate nurses within the acute care system. If it wasn’t for the pandemic and my ‘all-rounder’ COVID experience, I assume I would still be in the nursing pool, trying to find my place in the nursing world.

Reflecting on that intense time, I can see how the nursing staff had the responsibility—or the perceived responsibility—to de-escalate aggression and reassure anxious and agitated members of the public. It was scary how quickly people could turn hostile when a nurse did not give them the care or services they expected, whether they were eligible or not.

The absolute downside of COVID for nurses was being the face of the pandemic. We were the face of the public health system and some people saw us as the face of the government’s COVID-19 efforts. How is it that as nurses we could be so respected and yet so disrespected at the same time? This was the absolute paradox of this pandemic.

Working as a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic taught me about that eternal balance between giving compassion and enforcing healthy boundaries. It also taught me that the best support for nurses, generally, is other nurses. The level of camaraderie I experienced during the pandemic was incredible!

COVID showed me the absolute worst in society, but also the best. It taught me to choose kindness always, within and outside my occupation.