My story is not just about me. It’s about an outer metropolitan emergency department that came together and worked tirelessly for the community it serves.
Throughout the pandemic, I saw daily changes to processes and structure that impacted everyone—staff, patients and families. The idea was to ensure the safety of patients as well as the staff who were there to help them.
Without the nursing staff’s dedication and teamwork, our department would not have been able to function. I saw staff do overtime and double shifts to cover shortages when their colleagues were off with COVID-19. With no hesitation, they went that extra mile, and without their goodwill and willingness to ensure the department could still run a service, patients would not have been able to be treated.
They embraced all the changes made. They worked professionally and compassionately no matter what was thrown at them—and they did it wearing full PPE.
Full PPE added another layer of distress. Many staff felt it made nursing more impersonal, that patients and their families found it harder to relate to them when they couldn’t see them behind the mask, gown and goggles. It was even harder for patients with English as a second language trying to understand what was being said to them through a mask.
Patients who would normally have family support were denied this because of the COVID restrictions. It became the nurse’s role to ensure patients felt heard and supported. Communication became even more important during this time—not just verbal communication but visual communication—to try to reach as many people as possible, to educate, to show understanding and compassion. Video communication using iPads became part of the norm, allowing families to be part of the decision-making process.
The hardest thing for many nurses was the way the restrictions impacted on death and dying. The rules made it hard for families to say goodbye, especially in unexpected circumstances—and this happens often in an emergency department.
Despite all the sad stories, the deflation in feeling like you just got through the day, and the changes made daily without any change management process, the sense of teamwork and support amongst the staff was powerful.
We set up a welfare team to check on isolated staff. They would call the person frequently and drop off care packages with simple things like milk and bread. They cooked meals and dropped them off safely to those who were unwell with COVID. All of this was done on the team’s own time. They are still doing it today—a real sign that the team’s family atmosphere grew exponentially through COVID.
The local community came together during the pandemic to cook meals for our emergency department staff and randomly sent in food parcels. The local primary schools sent messages of thanks and good wishes.
As a nurse unit manager, I worked twelve to fourteen hours each day to make sure staff knew they were supported and to fill in for vacancies that could not be replaced and were essential for the running of the shift. I would not ask any staff to do something I was not willing to do myself. If physical changes were required, the emergency medical director and I would make sure we were there to put them in place and to ensure that all staff were kept updated.
The last three years have taken a toll on everyone, including me. Many staff left the emergency department seeking less demanding work and a better work-life balance, something they would not have considered pre COVID.
It is difficult for people outside a clinical area to appreciate the sacrifices that all healthcare workers undertook—and they did it with dignity, professionalism and a willingness to care for their community and their colleagues.
The COVID pandemic showed that staff banding together, working as a team, making everyone part of their own family, can achieve anything.
I no longer hold the position I held during COVID, but I wish to acknowledge the staff with whom I worked.