Australia’s ICU nurses are in the biggest fight they have ever had.
The enemy is invisible, swift and deadly.
Across the world, COVID-19 has killed thousands of their colleagues.
Now ICU nurses from across Sydney are opening up about what it’s like working on the wards with COVID patients.
They’re pleading with Australians to fight off their pandemic fatigue and take it seriously.
The city is struggling under the weight of the current outbreak, and the rest of the nation is waiting patiently to see how far incursions may have spread.
Concerned that people are not taking the virus as seriously as they need to, ICU nurse Lauren is speaking out.
“People are numb to it. There is a lot of COVID fatigue where people are just like ‘oh another lockdown’,” Lauren said, speaking to TND under a pseudonym.
COVID nurses ‘the last face patients see’
Australians have forgotten how deadly the virus is, and what will happen to the community if it takes off, Lauren said.
“People don’t understand it. I think it’s just that people are immune to [hearing about] it and I think it’s because we haven’t been overwhelmed by the virus,” she said.
The shifts on the wards are long – they last for 12 hours.
When the nurses arrive, they change into surgical scrubs before putting on their PPE. There’s a spotter in the room to make sure the protective equipment doesn’t move or come loose.
If patients are ventilated and stable, nurses will visit them every four hours, to minimise their contact with them.
They use iPads to contact the patients’ families via Skype, sometimes for the last time.
“We try to make it as human as possible, but you’re the last face in a mask someone sees as they pass away,” Lauren said.
Between them, nurses share jokes about looking after each other if they catch it.
By the end of the shift, the PPE is heavy and painful. Their skin is dry and sore; they have permanent incisions on their faces from the masks.
The nurses wash down thoroughly, go home, throw their clothes straight into the washing machine and shower again.
Every shift, Lauren says, they take home the fear they’re bringing COVID back into their households, to their families and communities.
“Even though I’m vaccinated I’m still concerned about bringing COVID home to my family,” she said.
“You get scared. I worry for my kids. I worry what I might bring home.
“It’s like going into a war. It’s not an enemy you can see and it’s not a battle we really know how to fight.
“When I was at university, there was no ‘pandemic 101’. At least a soldier is trained, but we were not trained in this.”
She said the pace of the vaccine rollout was frustrating, as was the hesitation in parts of the community to get it.
Across New South Wales, hospitals are preparing to suspend elective surgery as the number of people admitted with COVID increases.
They’re preparing for surge capacity, with whole wards becoming COVID zones and where all staff wear PPE.
Lauren said they are prepared: The hospital has put in place good procedures, but at the end of the day, the community and governments need to work together to stop the virus from transmitting.
“I don’t want that for the people we care for, that we are put into a situation where we’re overrun,” she said.
The fact that she will see more of the virus’ impacts than most Australians is not lost on her. It’s a risk she is willing to make.
“We’re not doing this for ourselves, we’re doing it for the community,” she said.
But one that comes with serious consequences if she catches it.
“We don’t get danger money. We don’t get a gold card after this. If we get sick, we get sick for life.”