opinion

'Last week, Scott Morrison told Australians that hospitals were ready for Omicron. He lied.'

I was sitting in the backseat of an Uber last week when the driver said something that stunned me. Exhausted and emotionally defeated, after a 10-hour shift in full PPE, this Uber driver asked me how my day had been. "Tiring," I replied.

He responded with, "But you’re a nurse, you signed up for this."

I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I stared out the window, watching the trees and people pass us by as I fought back tears of fatigue and frustration. I have been a nurse for 10 years but I didn’t sign up for this. None of us did.

Watch: Victorian nurse unit manager Michelle Spence talks about treating anti-vax patients. Post continues after video.


Video via Victorian Government.

When I became a nurse, I was filled with grand ideas of the difference that I would make in people’s lives, that I would be a part of groundbreaking surgeries, I would save the lives of Victorians and get to travel the world off the back of my registration. When I became a nurse at 21, I was full of optimism and dreams... but this is a nightmare.

The Uber driver was not the first person to tell me that I signed up to be a nurse, but the previous times I received these comments were at the start of the pandemic, not two years in. I had hoped that people had developed a little more respect for healthcare workers over the past two years, but he is just as tired and over it as I am. He is also, in my opinion, being gaslit by the federal government into believing that the healthcare system is ready and coping. 

We are not.

We are struggling. We are crumbling. The healthcare system is failing, and I am terrified that it is too late and that Victorians will suffer, unnecessarily, as a result. 

People might read that last sentence and think I’m being slightly alarmist, but it’s not much of a stretch. 

READ: 'We are burnt out.' The reality of working in a NSW hospital right now.

This week, my hospital has over 400 staff in isolation with COVID and a further 250 in quarantine. The Royal Children’s Hospital has over 390 healthcare workers in isolation with COVID and more than 350 workers in quarantine. These numbers are reflected across all tertiary Melbourne hospitals, ambulance and aged care facilities. Healthcare workers are stretched to breaking point, and Victorians lives are being put on the line.

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This week alone I have heard recounts of near misses from every sector, stories of people being overworked, understaffed, and desperate for help. But you wouldn’t know it if you listened to the Prime Minister.

This week, I heard of a patient who was turned away from my hospital because we didn’t have the beds. Instead, he was driven to another hospital to seek treatment by a doctor because there were no paramedics available to assist with the transfer.

This week, a friend of mine told me that her hospital had changed their nurse to patient ratios (which are dictated by our Enterprise Bargaining Agreement). They went from 1:4 (one nurse to four patients) to 1:6 in a pediatric setting, because everyone is isolating or in quarantine.

An agency nurse told me that this week he had worked alongside a nurse that had fractured her foot. How? Who knows, but when she tried to call in sick, the ward was already short three of their seven morning shift nurses and her manager had begged her to come in.

Australian healthcare workers have been working tirelessly since the start of the pandemic. Image: Getty/Asanka Ratnayake. 

Nursing in aged care could be even worse than working in a hospital right now. When my friend from university recounted his working conditions, I didn’t even know what to say. This week, he went to work at a 50 person facility alongside just two personal care assistants. This meant that three staff were responsible for the personal hygiene, medical care, and holistic care of 50 people with high dependency needs.

Over much-needed drinks, my friend who works in mental health described to me how her colleague was attacked in the forensic psychology ward because they had two nurses on the floor when they should have had five. She said that they were short-staffed because of COVID but also because around 50 per cent of her colleagues had resigned in the last 12 months.

A paediatric intensive care nurse told me that her hours have increased from 64 to 96 hours a fortnight and that on her ward, they are regularly looking after patients with around 50 per cent of the staff they required. For her, this meant more than not being able to bathe her patients, this meant not having enough staff to run a code in an emergency. 

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We can’t pretend that it’s just the hospitals that are suffering either. Prior to the pandemic, it would be normal to see two to three ambulances ramped outside the hospital (waiting to admit their patients), now it’s normal to see at least 12. 

This week, Ambulance Victoria communicated that people were experiencing longer than normal wait times because they have more than 400 paramedics and Ambulance Victoria staff in isolation with COVID. These wait times are only lengthened by Emergency Departments and their inability to admit people because they are full of patients waiting for a hospital bed in a bed-blocked system.

If you ask any nurse how they’re feeling, my bet would be that their answer would be "tired" or "frustrated". Some might yell and some might cry and that would be warranted.

I cried this week because I found out that the government was no longer paying us COVID leave if we got sick. Prior to 2022, if my colleagues or I were sick with COVID, had a reaction to the booster, or needed to isolate and wait for PCR results, we were secure in the knowledge that we would be paid. Now if we get COVID at work or in the community, we will only get paid if we have enough personal leave or annual leave to cover our absence. This was a slap in the face for people who have spent the last two years working tirelessly, putting ourselves and our families on the line to keep others safe. Who is keeping us safe?

I cried this week because I looked after a COVID positive patient who was anti-vax. A patient who spent hours trying to convince me that COVID was a hoax, and that we were worried for nothing, that we didn’t need to wear our PPE when treating him. He was a patient that had lied to us throughout his admission process and put us all at risk. The next day he was put on a ventilator.

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I cry regularly because I cannot believe the selfishness of individuals who refuse to think about people other than themselves. They say things like "it’s just the flu" and refuse to acknowledge that for some people, catching the flu or COVID, can be life-threatening, and that COVID can be life-threatening for anyone.

Last week, Scott Morrison stood in front of the nation and told Australians that hospitals were ready for Omicron, that we had the resources available and the beds to treat sick Australians. He lied. And then our Prime Minister changed the isolation and testing protocols overnight forcing the states to fend for themselves and develop COVID positive registration systems in 24 hours. Systems that countries like the UK have had in place for months, systems that the federal government could have easily adopted. 

Scott Morrison walked up to that lectern, sent the country into a frenzy, and left the states and healthcare workers scrambling to fend for themselves. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of COVID positive people have gone un-registered and are walking amongst us.

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The thing is; we were already tired, we already needed a break.

We went through the first wave and survived; we developed new policies and procedures and we listened and learned from our international colleagues. 

When we came out of the first wave we were told to push through our fatigue, to add extra surgical lists on the weekends, and to decrease the elective surgery waiting times. That’s what we did. We pushed through because we had to because people needed to be looked after. 

Then the second and the third waves hit, and now one in five nurses are leaving the profession.

We are two years into this pandemic and are still without any dedicated COVID centres, without a system that sends healthy, COVID free elective surgery patients to private hospitals where they can get the treatment they need. 

We are two years into this pandemic and now Australians have been left to use common sense and "let it rip". 

I don’t know what the next couple of months are going to bring but I know one thing for sure; I have been a nurse for 10 years but I won’t be a nurse for 10 more.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

The feature image used is a stock image from Getty. 

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