I knew at the start that working on the COVID frontline would either make me or break me.
There were days when I felt I was staring Everest in the face. An evening when I cried hysterically on the phone, aching for the physical presence of my husband because I’d been starved of hugs and basic human contact. A day when I walked down an almost-empty corridor, barely lit by a flickering fluorescent light, to the trailing sound of a woman wheezing her last breaths. And days when I felt responsible for every single death. If only I could save them—even one—I would be a ‘good nurse’.
When I first saw a COVID patient, I was working in hotel quarantine. The hotel was bustling with patrons, but eerily silent. Only the ‘ding’ of the elevator opening its doors to what felt like impending doom was heard. I had offered to complete the daily PCR tests in the red zone— where COVID patients were staying—and that’s the first time I saw COVID-19 in someone’s eyes.
Their cough was not a cough I’d heard before. Uncertainty rolled off their tongue as they begged for freedom from their hotel suite that was now their prison cell. Their grey, sunken, tired eyes were not those of a regular patient. They were full of fear, panic, distress, uncertainty. And I felt like a duck on a lake—brave in uniform and self-assured on top but paddling like mad underneath.
Later, when I was deployed to aged care facilities in Melbourne and death surrounded me daily, I thought, ‘You’re too human for this. You’re not strong enough. You’ll pay for this mentally.’
But I pushed on. Through the repeat soft- tissue injury on my nose from the N95 face masks. Through the vapour that fogged my face shield and made the day look like a hazy dream.
Through the fourteen-hour toil that seemed never ending. I pushed on until I physically couldn’t push anymore—then I tested positive to COVID-19.
Immediately, I was transferred from my motor-inn room to a city hotel—known as a hotel for heroes. Escorted away like a prisoner, I felt like a token on a monopoly game: Do not pass go, do not collect $200. I felt defeated—I wanted to be a good nurse—but I could now only surrender to the well-deserved break COVID was enforcing.
Yes, the pandemic did absolutely break me at times, but I have mentally superglued those broken parts back together.
I’ve learnt that knowing everything or not getting COVID could not make me a good nurse. That what made me a good nurse was the heartfelt support of my husband, my family, my beautiful friends and my community.
My ability to transform what I was going through into a strength, an added building block in my experience. My capacity to handle the curve balls and situations that were thrown at me every day.
And those treasured moments: taking fifteen peaceful minutes out of my day to quietly feed the workplace chickens; looking up at the blue July sky and pretending for a moment that COVID wasn’t happening.
Now, instead of retracting into anxiety, I quietly reflect. Instead of reliving the sounds of short, struggled breathing, I remember my husband’s sweet words: ‘I love you and I am so proud of you.’
Instead of feeling responsible for the deaths, I feel gratitude for those I was privileged to make comfortable as they passed, often bringing an iPad to their faces as their families whispered their final loving words.
If we learn anything at all from this pandemic, may it be that we are all simply human, not invincible beings with immediate answers, and that working together—and not against each other—brings success.
If we learn even this, I will also know that my patients did not die in vain and that working on the frontline, away from the comforts of my home and everything I loved, was worth it.