I signed on for my first COVID shift at a Melbourne aged care facility in mid-July.
The first three days were chaos.
A few of the RNs were fairly green and unsure of themselves and there was no orientation despite about 85% of the staff being agency nurses.
I could see gaps in infection control around clinical bins, PPE dressing areas and trolleys… and with so many staff already in isolation, new agency staff were struggling with basics like incomplete charts and mix-ups over residents’ dietary requirements.
When I started there were six RNs and 12 PCs caring for about 46 residents, but over the next week, COVID exposure spread among the workforce, and some days only a few would arrive to start the shift.
However, nothing compared to the death toll.
It was an average of one, two or three a day for the 11 days I was working, and at any time, three residents were palliative, and all COVID-19 positive.
Within a week only 25 residents were still alive, all COVID-19 positive. On my second week, only 20.
I felt so helpless and as a palliative nurse, a failure.
Each person I developed a rapport with would pass away.
Knowing every day someone was going to pass away in the next few hours, I’d say to myself that I must get back to them so they’re not alone when they are dying, but I didn’t get the chance.
There was never enough time.
Working in such a challenging environment was physically and emotionally exhausting. Everything from donning and doffing fresh PPE, to waiting for ambulances, medication delivery and contacting stricken families, took every ounce of energy.
There were missed meals and tea breaks, and cases where staff were so fatigued or dehydrated they struggled to get through their shift.
The amazing PC staff especially were under considerable strain.
While having a rare cup of tea, I quizzed one Personal Carer on how she was managing the workload and daily deaths. Her words were, “I go home, have a shower, sit down in my room and cry”.
I related to this a little too well and I assured her this was pretty much what most of us were doing. Including me.
Then one morning on my day off I woke with a sore throat that developed into a cough, a heavy chest and shortness of breath.
An x-ray confirmed I had COVID-linked pneumonia in the lower lobe of my left lung.
They put me in hospital in a room with a very ill elderly lady.
Listening to the elderly lady cough, I knew well the sounds of her deteriorating COVID symptoms.
I was feeling quite unwell and all I wanted was to leave the hospital before the old lady died.
I know it was very selfish to think of myself and not the poor lady beside me. But I felt hopeless.
I was thinking I may not come out of this well. I’m alone in a city, in the hands of others trying to cope with this looming crisis. So I tried to relax and pray for her.
The following night, now on a course of antibiotics, I was transferred to a hotel room.
For 16 days I was isolated in a room on the second floor. Most of the days I slept. Some days were OK and others were dreadful.
The antibiotics from the hospital made me bilious. Vomiting, diarrhoea and nausea were a constant problem, but I persevered hoping to improve. However, the heaviness on my chest, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue continued.
I had my 66th birthday in isolation and had plenty of supportive phone calls, but I am sure my husband thought he would never see me again. During one phone call to him I started throwing up again.
By this stage having a strong Christian faith was my lifeline. When I thought of not waking up, I was at peace – satisfied I had done what I was meant to do, and was where I was meant to be.
I knew the risks and I was prepared to take them. It’s called nursing. I don’t need to be thanked for doing my job. I love what I do.
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