In July 2020, community transmission of COVID was becoming out of control in Melbourne. The usual post-surgical cases—hips, knees and backs—that we saw at our private rehabilitation hospital came to a halt.
Our hospital made an agreement with the Victorian Government to re-deploy staff to aged care facilities or to other places within the public and private sectors where they were needed. Calls for assistance were received on a daily basis as surgery stopped and our wards closed. We were overstaffed and some staff decided to go and help in different places.
The call for help was something I thought about very carefully. My husband and sons were understandably concerned. With no vaccine available, my family was worried that maybe I would contract the virus and potentially give it to them.
Watching a movie called ‘When calls the heart’ helped me make up my mind. It’s about a schoolteacher called Elizabeth and a mounted police officer called Jack who go to work in a remote area of Canada. Jack is asked to go and lead some troops into the north where people are getting killed. Elizabeth, who is now his fiancée, doesn’t want him to go. For a while, Jack stays, but it doesn’t feel right to him because he feels it’s his calling. He decides to go despite the danger to himself. Later Mountie Jack returns alive, changed but sure he’d made the right decision.
As I watched, it made me contemplate that this was so true—that rather than feeling helpless about the aged care stories I kept reading every day in the papers, this was my chance to help.
When I made the decision to work in a COVID ward, a weight lifted off my shoulders. My focus changed to thinking about the suffering of these vulnerable and helpless elderly people with COVID.
Arriving for duty, I was greeted warmly in the preparation area where I put on my PPE. It was so well organised and thought out and I appreciated the kind words of support my new colleagues gave me as the newbie on the block. I was introduced to the team of three I would be working with that night. We had six patients between us. They were all from different aged care homes and I was quickly shown the routine of caring for them.
Our time was mostly spent providing pressure area care, changing incontinence pads, feeding bedridden patients, and providing drinks, mouth care and medications. All with a touch of tender loving care. Most of the patients had dementia in varying degrees and language barriers too. But everyone understood a light squeeze of the hand, gentle words and soft strokes on their arm or forehead.
Most of our six patients were well on their way to recovery. Only one had an active cough and one other was on oxygen.
I found working in PPE hard and hot. The gowns were plastic and didn’t breathe so I became very sweaty. The mask and face shield created an area of mist that made it difficult to see. I found this hard to adjust to and worried I wouldn’t be able to read the medication charts.
We took frequent breaks to take a breather from the PPE and have a drink of water so we didn’t dehydrate, but by the end of the shift my head was hurting, and my ears and face were sore from the pressure of the elastic bands. Once, the elastic band on my face shield broke and caused my shield to fall off. This was a breach and I felt scared. I had to redo my PPE all over again.
But I’m glad I helped. It was rewarding and something I will never forget. It felt good to be able to share some of the challenges during the COVID crisis.