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Hannah Elliott (Class of 2012) is a Registered Nurse in the Emergency Department at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital. For the past few months she and her colleagues have been at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hannah wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic
Hannah wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic

What's it’s been like working as a Nurse in the Alfred Hospital during the pandemic?

I’ve been in this role for three years. Nothing has ever been like it is at the moment. We haven’t been inundated with patients, because the government has listened to the scientists and the research and the evidence. That’s really the best thing that could have happened for us. We can actually handle it. 

But every single day there’s something different. Every single day there is a change to what we are doing. In fact sometimes it changes every hour! It’s not unexpected to have to change what you do every hour. But there are changes being forced upon us from so many different levels. The Government sets the guidelines that we base our protocols on. Somebody who might not have met criteria for testing [for COVID-19] at the start of the day may now meet the criteria. It’s an evolving thing. 

But it’s the added stress which is the main challenge. You have the risk of getting COVID-19 because you’re around it all the time. It’s been okay because the hospital has looked after us and made sure we’re protected. But in the way that everyone’s lives are affected in every single way by this, it’s the same with us. Every single aspect is affected. It’s exhausting.

How different is it right now from what you are used to?

We have to wear the face mask all the time, regardless. But we only wear head to toe Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)  if we are going into a room with a patient with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. So lots of donning and doffing, putting on gear and taking off gear. So much donning and doffing! That’s how it's different. There is just so much added time to make sure everybody is safe.Which we are all grateful to do, obviously. We want to keep each other safe and keep ourselves safe.

But it’s really weird to be wearing masks all the time because you can’t talk to people like you normally do - you can’t read what they mean and you can’t lip read, so there’s that visual difference all the time to constantly remind us, oh we are doing this. 

There are lots more things that you have to consider. All the time. More layers that you have to think about in a pandemic. 

Have you been worried?

Yeah. When we were in Stage 2 in Australia of Lockdown, in the [Emergency] Department everyone was very anxious. There was a feeling of impending doom. I think a lot of people have felt that regardless of whether they worked in healthcare or not. 

But once we started seeing the numbers and we had really good testing and we did a lot of work preparing for it, we sort of went, ‘okay, we are prepared, we’re going to be okay’. The country is prepared as well. So it’s not been as bad now because we’ve done all that preparation and we’ve got the PPE. 

Once we realised how differently Australia was doing in comparison to other countries like Italy or Spain and the UK it completely reassured us. For the moment anyway. It’s obviously still evolving, but we are now prepared for it. My hospital has expanded its department three times the size, if we do get that demand. I think for the moment we are all feeling okay. Despite everything. 

How does it feel to be a frontline worker in a pandemic?

Being a frontline worker… there is nowhere else I’d rather be. I don’t want to say we signed up for this - you’d never sign up to work in a pandemic, but we do this job to help people, no matter what, whether we are in a pandemic or not. We help people using our skills to make people more comfortable and healthier. I feel lucky that I’m able to help in the way that I can.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve had to go through in the last few weeks?

I think that the most challenging thing would be that we didn’t know what to expect. In those couple of weeks when we didn’t know what was coming, we didn’t know if we were going to get hit with lots and lots of really unwell people. It was challenging. You had to wait and see. In terms of causing stress, that was the most challenging. 

But at work you never do anything on our own. You have 50 people there in the department with you, to do everything that needs doing. If we weren’t well staffed that would be challenging but because we’re so well supported, a lot of that is mitigated. 

How is the mental health affecting your team and the people around you?

In terms of teamwork we’ve had to adapt a lot, because we have a lot of people who we have to nurse in isolation. When we go in those rooms we have to wear head to toe PPE. So we’ve gotten very good at communicating through doors and walls! Everybody is there to support each other. When you are stuck inside those isolation rooms everyone is outside, willing to help you if you need it. People just step up to help each other out. And it’s always been like that but more so at the moment because you actually need help. You can’t do those tasks on your own. 

We are all living through the exact same thing at work, at home, in our lives. We feel the support of being in it all together. 

How does it feel to have the nation at your back?

It’s been fantastic. There couldn’t have been more support to frontline workers. But it’s not even for us. It’s for the patients and the vulnerable people. By putting in these restrictions they’ve stopped the spread of the disease significantly, and therefore people are healthy and well and that is what really matters at the end of the day. 

How has this experience changed you?

I think it's definitely made me more adaptable. Considering that as nurses we’re already forced to be adaptable it's definitely improved my adaptability. We constantly have to think of new ways to make things easier. I think the biggest thing for me is being flexible and being adaptable. 

Any messages for Ivanhoe Girls considering a career in the health industry ?

Anybody entering the health care profession will never regret it. It’s rewarding in itself. But there is nothing like it. To work in healthcare, you’ve usually done three or four years at university. It’s very professional, very clinical, there’s a lot of critical thinking, there's a lot of autonomy. I know from Ivanhoe Girls’ they encourage autonomy. It’s one of the biggest things I took from the School. And those things are paired with being able to help people. So you’d never regret going into health care as a nurse, doctor, pharmacist, social worker, any of those things. 

I can’t see myself doing anything else now.