By Emma Reardon MACN
I began writing this article on 11 August 2020, eight days into my quarantine at the Hotel for Heroes with a COVID-19 infection. Over the past eight months, I’ve written and rewritten the words, shaped and reshaped the story. This article began as a public health message with details of symptom timelines and medical tests but over time the purpose of the article changed and evolved into what it is now — a story of a student nurse’s insight into the incredible strength, resilience and comradery of nurses.
- Where it began
In 2020 I had started my final year of nursing, ready to polish my skills, finalise my clinical placements and secure the graduate year of my dreams. By March, it was clear that the year would not pan out as I had expected. In April, some hospitals began to recruit students nurses in support roles to assist the COVID-19 response in hospitals. For many of my peers and myself we could see the need and didn’t think twice about applying to the Registered Undergraduate Student of Nursing (RUSON) program. It was a golden opportunity, the reason we entered nursing was to help people and what better way than supporting the nursing staff during a pandemic? I remember it all happening so quickly, applying on a Monday, interviewing on a Friday and starting on the wards the following week. We were waiting for a wave of cases that didn’t eventuate. Australia was so lucky to be ahead of the world and we had time to prepare. The training we received from the hospital was phenomenal. We practised personal protective Equipment (PPE), ran code situation drills and workshopped workflow solutions for any barriers that arose. It was incredible to be included in such relevant, current and purposeful practical training — truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When student nurse Emma was first tested for COVID her result was negative. Less than 24 hours later the virus was taking its toll.— News Breakfast (@BreakfastNews) August 17, 2020
"I really want people to understand it doesn't matter how recently you tested negative, if your symptoms develop ... just get retested." pic.twitter.com/Jxj76E0m1d
- Then it came
We seemed to be waiting, all prepared and ready for a wave that wasn’t coming. Then it came, slowly at first, one patient from Emergency with shortness of breath into an isolation room – positive. Then another. Then all the isolation rooms were COVID-19 positive, then half the ward, then the whole ward, each stage progressing more rapidly than the previous, at a seemingly exponential rate. The changes to PPE regulations and workflow procedures happened rapidly too as the situation evolved. It felt ever-changing and ever-growing. At the height of COVID-19 community transmission in Victoria, with my eighth COVID-19 swab, I tested positive. Interestingly I had been asymptomatically swabbed as per protocol just two days prior showing a negative result. That to me is a testament to the unpredictability of the virus. For days, I was bedridden, unable to walk in a straight line due to loss of balance, unable to stand up in the shower because I was so near collapse, barely able to hold my phone up long enough to send messages to friends and family due to fatigue, unable to speak in complete sentences without losing breath. I spent a total of 19 days in hotel quarantine, the loneliest days of my life.
- Then the nurses shone
When I returned to work, it was devastating. COVID-19 had ravaged the hospital and the patient lives lost were incomprehensible. When I signed up to work during the pandemic, I knew what I was signing up for. The nurses on the ward that I worked on, didn’t. They were working on their normal wards, some of them had been working there for years, others were graduate nurses, then overnight these wards became pandemic hotspots. What amazed me was the selflessness of those nurses. In times like those, it can be natural, almost automatic, to become angry, stressed and blameful about the chaos and trauma you find yourself immersed in, but incredibly, those nurses carried no air of negativity. There was a clear culture of rising to the challenge, supporting one another and most importantly, putting their patients first.
I was away sick myself at the height of the infections on our ward, where patients were seriously unwell and death was not uncommon. When I returned, I heard stories from my colleagues about their dedication to their patients. The nurses would spend hours sitting with their dying patients holding their hands ensuring they weren’t alone in their final minutes of life. The nurses would try their best to facilitate communication with the families through video call on the iPads. Families weren’t allowed to visit, but I can guarantee none of those patients were alone. A nurse would have been there, sitting at the bedside, comforting them, providing their best patient care at their most unwell.
Many people have asked me if my experience changed my mind about pursuing nursing. For me, this experience highlighted the importance of nurses in providing quality patient care. It demonstrated how incredibly resilient nurses are, how they are willing to put fear and uncertainty aside for the benefit of their patients. From on the cusp of the nursing profession looking in, it made me immensely proud to be joining such a brilliant, selfless, resilient and caring profession this year as a graduate nurse.