How do you find yourself on the Queen’s Birthday honours list? Well, for Alison McMillan, Australia’s chief nursing and midwifery officer, it began with her first sight of the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess.
The killer virus was a whole new world when Ms McMillan answered her country’s call and jetted with the Australian Medical Assistance Team to Japan, where the cruise ship was tied up in quarantine beside a dock and its passengers confined to their cabins.
Footage of people falling dead on the streets of Wuhan was circulating on the web.
Medical authorities struggled to get a handle on what would soon surge beyond being merely an epidemic to a full-blown global pandemic.
Some medical prognosticators were talking darkly of a catastrophe with the potential to rival the Spanish Flu of a century earlier – a pandemic estimated to have killed between 40 million and 70 million people.
It was into this nightmare of uncertainty, risk and fear that the UK-born veteran nurse strode with barely a thought for her own safety.
Indeed, she even found something to smile about as the ship sat serenely by its Yokohama wharf.
“I’d probably get seasick in a bathtub,” laughs Professor McMillan, recalling her relief that the Princess Lines gleaming pleasure palace was not ploughing through the waves.
Her job was to help Australians end the dream holiday that became a nightmare and make it home to Australia.
She and another member of the Australian Medical Assistance Team, both covered head to foot in PPE gear, went from cabin to cabin taking the measure of her new patients’ health and morale.
It was a harrowing, deeply emotional time for the 200 Australians on board – and for the professionals helping them to get home, but Professor McMillan proved to be a tonic for the spirit.
“When we closed the doors, we could hear them cheering and whooping,” Professor McMillan remembers.
“That certainly made us both laugh.”
Professor McMillan, from the Melbourne suburb of Essendon, is one of 1190 Australians on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, which Governor-General David Hurley will announce on Monday.
This year’s list adds 63 Australians – including the recipients noted in this story – to a COVID-19 Honour Roll for stepping up and going beyond in the fight against the killer virus.
What makes this year’s list special is the fact that almost half of the names are those of women – 44 per cent to be exact.
That is “the highest ever percentage of women recognised through the General Division of the Order of Australia”, Mr Hurley said in a statement.
Queen’s Birthday Honours for coronavirus heroes at home
Numbers were at the front of Belinda Fraser’s mind.
Numbers, always numbers – in this case the number of ventilators that the 38-year-old had to source, and somehow obtain, when hospitals all over the world were seeking them in the greatest quantities possible.
The coronavirus pandemic has just been declared and new cases were erupting every day.
The Commonwealth Department of Health didn’t know, nor could it do more than guess, how many ventilators Australian hospitals would need. What confronted Ms Fraser was a limited supply and far too much demand.
Her first step was to replace with a computer the needles, notions and scrapbook supplies on the craft-room workbench in her Canberra home.
Her two boys, Lincoln and Euan, still shared the workspace while doing their homework – but only if her phone conversations while tracking down those ventilators didn’t involve talk of disease and death and the pandemic’s ever-rising toll.
As it happened, 11-year-old Lincoln, in Year 6, was working on an assignment about natural disasters, setting Ms Fraser’s mind to flitting from a schoolbook’s account of catastrophes to the real thing.
“It was a juggling act,” she recalls.
That was a year ago, when Ms Fraser joined the ventilator taskforce.
“There was a lot of pressure and stress and demand on myself and my team,” she said.
But it has all been worth it.
Not only did Australia avoid a ventilator shortage, but Ms Fraser earned herself a public service medal.
“I never wanted there to be a position where a doctor in an Australian hospital didn’t have those tools,” she said, a manifestation of the dedication that saw her put in those long hours and hard yards.
A trusted resource
After 48 years of full-time nursing Alison Kincaid was finally getting a break, venturing to explore Vietnam with a friend.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“The country closed behind us as we came home,” she said.
Ms Kincaid, 67 and just retired, put aside the days of ease and leisure she had been anticipating and went back to serving others.
Eager to protect her community in Albury, New South Wales, she took a job administering vaccines.
She never thought she would need to reassure so many people, young and old alike, that it is safe to get a coronavirus jab.
“What surprised me the most was that I went into a nursing home to vaccinate the staff [against the flu], and a really good percentage of them were not going to have the COVID vaccine,” Ms Kincaid said.
“I was actually able to educate them … and have a free and frank conversation with them about what their fears were.
“The important thing about nursing in our communities is that we are a trusted resource of information.”
During her teenage years, Ms Kincaid always thought she’d become a veterinary nurse. It seemed perfectly natural after growing up on a farm and always loving animals.
But her career counsellor suggested she’d be better suited to nursing humans and she took that advice.
Now, after her almost five decades in nursing, Ms Kincaid is a recipient of the Order of Australia Medal.
All these years later, there is one patient and one conversation whose vivid memory she retains to this day.
It was about a different health crisis – not COVID-19 but HIV/AIDS.
It starts with a man walking out of his GP’s office thinking he is about to die.
It was the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Australia – about 1000 Australians a year were dying from the disease. As far as he was concerned he had just been handed a certain death sentence.
At Ms Kincaid’s clinic, it all became too much and he burst into tears.
She told him of new treatments that could prevent him from dying from HIV/AIDS.
“You can just see all of the pain lift off his face, and he had hope,” Ms Kincaid recalled.
“I think to give someone hope is probably one of the greatest gifts you can give.”