My nursing career started in 1980. Nearly forty-three years later, I am still working as a registered nurse in the public sector.
Initially, I feared the pandemic would bring my career to a premature end as I did not want to put myself or family at risk. But I have been able to work permanently in triage since the beginning of the pandemic, lessening the risk to my family member who is immunocompromised.
The first COVID-positive patient I came across was very unwell—a man with a substantial medical history in his fifties. His rapid deterioration, from speaking at triage to needing admission to the intensive care unit, was frightening.
We were unaware of so much at that stage, and I assumed all COVID-positive patients would be as sick as he was. Fortunately, that was not the case.
Since then, I have been exposed to hundreds of COVID positive patients, some very unwell and some not. But no matter how unwell they are, nursing them means additional challenges and boundaries.
The extra workload has been huge. My small, metropolitan emergency department did not have the advantage of extra staff to test patients on arrival, so all extra screening, temperature checks, RAT tests and paperwork was down to the triage nurse. Then there was the added effort of donning and doffing PPE for all presentations.
When Melburnians were forced into multiple lockdowns, I was grateful to have a justified reason to leave home. The lockdowns worked, as the patients didn’t come—well, not in the same numbers as usual.
As the pandemic progressed, the patients returned. Many were unable to access GP clinics if they had any COVID symptoms at all, so our usual patient load increased with ‘well COVID patients’ wanting confirmation they had the virus.
Restrictions on visitors and the requirement for all patients and visitors to wear N95 face masks caused a lot of aggressive behaviour. I’ve had so many people yell at me, ‘I can’t breathe,’ while they clearly could, or tell me, ‘I have an exemption,’ when clearly they didn’t. It was a constant cause of angst. The number of Code Greys—alerts for actual or potential violent, aggressive, abusive or threatening behaviour by patients or visitors—increased in our department. I would love to know the statistics to see if this was true across the board.
Now it’s 2023 and I’m still working in triage. I’m glad I was able to work through the pandemic—it’s given me some interesting tales to tell my grandchildren one day!
Unvaccinated presentations, COVID deniers and mask refusers still cause unrest. I fear some of the compassion of nursing has been lost. Some nurses are reluctant to touch patients without wearing gloves, while masks make communication more difficult, especially with older patients and children. Is this the new normal? Will nurses ever not wear N95 masks when dealing with patients face to face?
Only the future and the next pandemic will tell. My nursing story will be over by then.