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"We are not going strong": What it's really like to work in a Sydney ICU right now.

They've been hailed the heroes of the pandemic. 

But according to a Sydney ICU nurse, healthcare workers have not been treated with the same respect. 

"We wonder what our value is sometimes because it feels like health workers are the canaries in the coal mine."

"And I can tell you, we're very sick canaries," Michelle Rosentreter, a senior ICU nurse at a Sydney metropolitan hospital and member of the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives' Association told Mamamia. 

Michelle is one of the thousands of ICU nurses working long hours to keep an understaffed health care system afloat.

It's a system she describes as "stressed and pressured". 

"Since the pandemic, our workloads have significantly increased and patient numbers in our ICU, and every other specialty, has been terribly burdened."

Meanwhile, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet says our health system "remains strong". 

It's a comment that doesn't sit right with many healthcare workers, says Michelle.  

"They're very cross... ambulances are struggling, all areas are burdened. I don't know why you would call it very strong."

"I think the premier has to spend more than one day looking at statistics and actually spend a week in emergency... and let him see with his own eyes what is strong and what is not," she added.

"We have a beautiful, compassionate workforce. But [the government] is using the personality of nurses and healthcare workers to pump up what is not a sustainable healthcare system at this stage of the pandemic."

Michelle, who has been working as a nurse for 20 years, says one problem is  hospitals are considered the frontline of the pandemic.

"The sentiment amongst the nurses and midwives of the hospital I work at, is that we shouldn't be the frontline for the pandemic. Hospitals are there to treat, manage and stabilise admissions, regardless of a diagnosis of COVID-19. And we would argue that the frontline is, in fact, your GPs and your community testing clinics."

Instead, a bulk of the burden is falling to the busy nurses of the ICU units, who are working around eight to eighteen hour shifts to care for patients. 

While on shift, Michelle and other nurses are busy preparing equipment and beds for patients, troubleshooting problems, assisting with personal hygiene, delivering medications, attending to medical emergencies and keeping in contact with families whose loved ones are in the ICU.

While ICU nurses usually care for one patient at a time, Michelle says they can easily find themselves looking after two.

"I don't like to be put in that position at all as it's incredibly stressful," she shared. "The whole reason we do this job and love this job is because we want to provide the best bedside nursing care that we can. And stresses mean that that's not always possible."

Unfortunately, those stresses may get even worse as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. 

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On Tuesday, hospital administrations in NSW increased by over one hundred to 1,344. There are 105 COIVD-19 patients currently being treated in the ICU. 

"I certainly do [think things will get worse]," says Michelle. 

"I see an increase in presentations to hospital, I see an increase in the workloads, and I see persistent pressure placed on the workforce to do their best... We just can't keep going at this pace."

Indeed, staff are already bearing the brunt of it. 

"Burnout seems to be more common than not during this time of the pandemic. It can make you unwell to work constantly like this without reprisal. 

"I suffered burnout for the first time myself... My body completely seized up. I ended up having to call an ambulance to go into emergency."

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Thankfully, Michelle was able to have time off work while she was recovering. But she says staff can sometimes be "reprimanded" when they take sick leave.

"Prior to the pandemic, if you weren't feeling well for a shift, you had ample time to ring in and say, 'I'm going to the doctor. I won't be in today.'And that was actually implored. Don't bring bugs to work, look after yourself, get better... Now [when you call in sick] it's like an interrogation. And that really does surprise us that health workers are treated this way."

Michelle is also aware of instances where nurses haven't been able to take their planned leave due to staff shortages, which is partially due to staff having to isolate. 

There have also been reports of nurses quitting or stepping back to take a break. Michelle is one of them.

"l'm going down to reduced hours and working in a non-clinical role for the bulk of this year just to rest myself. I have to look after my health," she said. 

As for the healthcare system, Michelle would also like to see desperate changes made. The main being more staff.  

"If we continue, like this were not going to have a very strong workforce, they need to release the budgetary constraints to recruitment and allow us to actually bring in these beautiful new nurses and fresh faces or second career nurses and support them, so we've got the capacity to work right."

In the meantime, Michelle says the best thing we can all do right now is to "be kind to healthcare workers".

"And if you do have to present to emergency, and it just seems to be dragging and dragging, I would encourage you to write to your local MP because it's not for the lack of want. Your staff, your clinicians, we really do want to do the best by you. They're not ignoring you, they're just literally under the pump."

The image used is a stock photo. 

Feature Image: Supplied/New South Wales Nurses and Midwives' Association.

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