It was a ‘normal Friday’ when the phone rang. I don’t normally answer the phone on my days off, but something made me this day. It was my team leader. She asked me if I had everything I needed to be able to work from home.
At first, I couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. Then the words hit me: as of next week, we would only be doing phone and video calls from home.
I remember walking into the office at work that afternoon—looking around—thinking, what am I going to need at home to be able to provide maternal and child health services to our most vulnerable? I grabbed what I thought might be helpful and left.
That first day working from home—full calendar of clients—I’m wondering, ‘How is this going to work?’ I remember my first phone call to a family with an eight-month-old baby. Neither of us knew what to say or what to ask, it’s so different over the phone. We stumbled through it. The parents were concerned about his weight and height, so I talked them through how they could check this and provided lots of reassurance.
As the week went on, it got easier and my ability to text and find online resources to send to the families got creative. It was as much a learning curve for me as it was for them.
The ‘home visits’ were the hardest to do over the phone, especially when English was not the first language. We used interpreters and had three-way conversations, trying to obtain the information we would normally get face to face.
Lots of pictures were being sent to nurses—discharge summaries so we could get the birth information, birth weight, height and so on, and photos of babies sleeping so we could assess their sleep environment. Lots of phone calls back and forth to parents as we realised we were missing information or had concerns about photos they had sent.
I was one of the first maternal and child health nurses to go back to a centre to work. I remember walking back into my office. All the posters had been taken down off the walls, everything that could be packed away had been. The furniture in our waiting rooms had been stacked up in a corner and covered in plastic and all our decorations had been replaced with boxes of PPE. The usually noisy, vibrant community centre was cold, dark and quiet.
At the centre, we called the families while they sat in the carpark and then we asked one parent to come in with the baby. We quickly weighed the baby, waited until the parent and baby got back into their car, and then we’d call them again to discuss any concerns. We were in full PPE and we soon learnt how challenging it was to engage babies when they couldn’t see our smiling faces.
For home visits, we drove to people’s houses, sat out the front to do as much paperwork as we could, put on our PPE, entered the home, quickly weighed the baby, then went back to the front door, took off our PPE, placed it in a bag and left it at the front door for the family to dispose of. We then returned to the centre and called the family if we needed to talk some things through.
First time parents’ groups moved online, making it hard for new mums to connect with others in the community. But the mums soon learnt that they could meet each other along pathways and have a quick distance chat while they walked their bubs in their prams or meet at a park and keep their distance but still chat—and their babies could at least see each other.
We formed a taskforce for families who were isolating. In the morning, we called to have a chat with those who had tested negative. Then a maternal and child health nurse and a team leader followed each other in their cars to the family’s home. We weren’t allowed to travel in the same car in case one of us was positive. We weighed the baby at the front door to minimise the risk to us, then left. We did this with about five babies in a day.
When families were isolating but positive, we dropped off scales to the family home so that they could weigh the baby and then call or text us with the baby’s weight. Once their seven days’ isolation was up, we went back and collected the scales.
I remember sitting in my office, my colleague in the room next to me, and leaving the door open between our two offices so we could chat over lunch. Gone were the days where we could sit in the same room. She was from regional Victoria where people had a little more freedom than we did in the metropolitan area, so she told me what she had been up to over the weekend. But she also chatted about the struggles of getting home through Melbourne’s ‘ring of steel’—where hundreds of police staffed checkpoints on freeways around Melbourne’s perimeter, stopping drivers from leaving the metropolitan rim, asking them if they had an essential reason to travel, and turning them around if they didn’t. She also spoke of family and friends who had stopped seeing her, worried that she would bring COVID into the regional area even though she was wearing full PPE at work.
Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t see everyone. The restrictions in place made this impossible and the policies about how we could operate, how far we could travel, and who we could and couldn’t see kept changing. But I am so pleased we found a way to support the families we did, helping them cope with their newborns, providing guidance to ensure their babies grew and developed as they should, and supporting mothers’ mental health.