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An emergency department on Christmas Day can often be quiet, says Kate Wallis, clinical nurse specialist at St Vincent’s hospital in Fitzroy. But not this year.
“Working on a Christmas Day pre COVID, you’d have fewer patients – we’d all sit and share food and it would be more relaxed,” she said.
“But today was sort of like any other day [during the pandemic] and we’re all a little bit shocked and tired.”
Nurse Kate Wallis received a Christmas gift as one of the nurses working through the holiday.Credit:Chris Hopkins
While many of us are lucky enough to kick up heels this festive season, life on the COVID-19 front line trudges on for the Victorian nurses, doctors and hospital workers who have been working under intense pressure for nearly two years.
Life for healthcare workers for the past 20 months has been lived under layers of hot plastic protective equipment, the constant threat of infection and the toll of caring for the critically ill and dying.
Christmas Day was no different.
“We have had a few COVID presentations today who have been quite ill,” Ms Wallis told The Age during a brief break on the ward.
“We’ve also had just generally unwell patients. I think during the pandemic some patients with chronic conditions haven’t really sought out medical care, so there’s been a few of those as well.”
While there wasn’t the usual all-in feast in the team room of the emergency department at St Vincent’s on Saturday, there were croissants, bagels and fresh fruit on hand for nurses to grab during breaks. There were also plenty of Christmas scrubs, and Santa hats on display over PPE according to Ms Wallis.
After finishing her shift on Saturday, Ms Wallis was set for full decontamination before heading off to Christmas lunch with family – something all nurses have had to do each shift during the pandemic.
“It’ll be strip off at the door, get changed, shower,” she said. The routine has served her well – she’s managed to avoid contracting coronavirus so far over the past 20 months.
“I actually feel safer at work than I do when I’m out and about in the community at the moment because we’re supplied with all the PPE – which is crazy. I’m just waiting for the day I get the call to say [you’d got COVID-19 because] you’ve been at the pub.”
Nearby, at Royal Melbourne Hospital, clinical nurse specialist in the ICU Hào Pham said her unit was quite busy. As Christmas lights twinkled and festive songs played in the background, 40 nurses tended to four ‘pods’ of 10 critical care patients each – including one pod entirely devoted to COVID-19 patients.
“As you can imagine it’s been a really long and arduous few years, and definitely a really tough time for all of us,” she said. “We put so much of ourselves into all of these patients – everyone that comes through, we treat them like our family.”
While Christmas food was on the menu for patients, Ms Pham’s team were enjoying potluck Christmas treats – socially distanced and individually portioned.
“I’ve made a pecan pie,” she laughed. “I’m bragging because I’ve never made pastry before. It’s just something full of butter and sugar.“
The nurses said their hospitals had struggled with staff shortages as many nurses had opted for less intensive types of work such as administering vaccines or tests, while others had scaled back work or left the profession altogether as a result of the stress of the pandemic.
“Today, we’re fully staffed, which is really nice,” said Ms Wallis at St Vincent’s. “But a lot of shifts now we work with at least six or seven nurses down.”
The Age reported on Saturday that hospitals are already having to close crucial ICU beds due to staff shortages exacerbated by staff sent into quarantine and increasing numbers of patients being hospitalised.
“A lot of my colleagues have either reduce their hours, to a couple of days a week, or they’ve gone to find another 9-5 job because they’re tired,” said Ms Ellis.
“I’m tired, and I don’t know what else I would do. I love my job – I really do, and I love the team I work with, but it does just get to a point where you go, ‘how is this affecting the rest of my life?’”
“At the same time, I’m very thankful. I’ve had this job throughout the last few years, I’ve had steady employment – I’ve actually been able to work more hours, save money during lockdown. I got to come to work and have social interaction unlike others working from home.”
The 30-year-old said she and her colleagues were holding out hope that the Omicron variant did end up being less severe and leading to fewer hospitalisations and also that a new cohort of fresh nurses out of university would soon fill the workforce gaps.
“Everyone get your vaccines, get your boosters and hopefully, hopefully everything will be mild and 2022 can be a better year.”
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