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The Nurse Break recently held a very popular Nursing During COVID / Pandemic 2021 Writing Competition. We were inundated with submissions and thank everyone. By Mara Saunders, RN (Chemotherapy Nurse, Associate Nurse Manager COVID-19 Vaccination Hub). She has called this piece ‘The Wait… and the Friends‘. To get notified of future competitions and content, sign up here.

To read articles about nurses’ raw experiences during COVID19 go here. To write for The Nurse Break go here

The Wait… and the Friends

By Mara Saunders, RN (Chemotherapy Nurse, Associate Nurse Manager COVID-19 Vaccination Hub)

Nursing in a pandemic feels like the last breath you pull in just before you enter an isolation room. It exists within the stories we tell each other while working in a vaccination or swabbing clinic, or in the relentlessness of a hospital ward. The best things about it, though, are the friendships.  Similar, I imagine, to those of war times past.

Early on in the pandemic, we gawked at footage of nurses overseas in futuristic PPE suits, reports of their single N95 masks being kept in a labelled paper bag, like the lunch you left in your school bag over the holidays.  We took a deep breath before donning our N95s and diving into isolation rooms, not yet realising we would learn that one mask would last up to four hours. The feeling of waiting for COVID-19 to hit was that of waiting for the other shoe to drop; like waiting for that roster yet to come out, like the patient allocations for your shift not yet done.

As a Day Oncology nurse at the time, I was not in those PPE space suits, nor were my N95s rationed in a paper bag. I did not assist in many now ominous-sounding Aerosol Generating Procedures. I was simply one of the many who didn’t directly care for the COVID-19 positive, but instead felt The Virus’ attack in other ways.

At first, I read disbelievingly the stories from the US, of the aforementioned paper bags storing a nurse’s allocated N95 for several days, magically not becoming contaminated on the inside by sheer force of managerial and budgetary will. I grew slightly less incredulous when our facility’s chemotherapy gowns became impossible to order, and the waste of a clean new disposable gown each day became looked upon as the frivolity it probably is. 

However, once the toilet paper disappeared from the publicly accessible toilets and the hand sanitiser had to be bolted to the walls, I realised this was a disease of more than our alveoli-  it was attacking our humanity, leaving fibrosis of the community spirit and our social landscape deeply changed. With lock-downs and social isolation, our need to connect with others who understood our experiences was vast and urgent.

At first, we all crowded around the waiting room telly, not socially distanced yet, watching the guy in a North Face jacket tell us of numbers going up and down, with seemingly no relationship to our workloads. But the fact that there were no patients in that waiting room, that it was full of nurses nervous about childcare closures, tells part of our story. Nursing in a pandemic seemed so full of waiting. We questioned if this was what being a Healthcare Hero was really all about

Cancer patients, terrified, cancelled or delayed their treatments. At first, we thought this was prudent. Surely they would resume their treatments after the worst of the risk had blown over!  But when we first called our patients to beg them to return, the fear had already spread.

People I never got to meet never went to their GP about that pesky mole, that new lump, that odd symptom. They never went to have a routine screening test, despite our pleading both privately and via social media.

You see, COVID saw a drop in cancer diagnoses.  But those were battles either delayed or lost over the care that never got to happen. As if it hasn’t stolen enough, COVID has stolen the precious time we purchase with screening tests.

To add insult to injury, those who returned or presented to hospital were not allowed a support person or visitors. To our workloads, we added an even higher level of emotional support, and the moral injury it accompanies when we watch our patients suffer.


Like many nurses, I wanted to do something to be more directly involved in fighting this new enemy.  I became a newly qualified certified nurse immuniser, splitting my time between my prior role and the new vaccination clinics blooming nearby.

I discovered that the best thing about this pandemic are the nurses I met there.  In the vaccination clinics, experienced ICU nurses worked alongside aged care nurses, alongside surgical nurses, each learning from the other.  We were and still are proudly nurse-led. We drew from the entire breadth of nursing in sourcing our leaders. 

Managers  from surgical and trauma nursing have set up and run massive operations, and Associate Managers, many very new to this kind of role like myself, from such varied specialities as emergency, operating theatres, oncology, research and general practice. The morning clinic Huddle soon became a chance to see what new acquisition of experience and enthusiasm had joined the team, and we each discovered so much more about our own profession.

I learned to recognise my theatre nurse colleagues by their colourful scrub caps, quite fashionable amongst general nurses now. Our Emergency Department colleagues shared crazy stories, often unbelievable in gore and humour, yet with the sting of violence and worse, truth. From each I gleaned tips and skills that I carry with me.

And of course, the ward nurses, the very pulse of our system.

If anyone tells you that our healthcare system is somehow not groaning under the weight of just a sprinkle of last straws, they’re lying. Keep in mind, this was well before Omicron!

The ward nurses came in droves. They were sick of the physically hard mornings, the unpredictable evenings, the cruel nights and crueller rosters. For a while, the very civilised hours we worked helped soothe the social isolation of lock-down and remote learning/home schooling of our children.

But we knew, collectively, we wouldn’t be allowed to choose our own destinies forever in this bizarre pandemic world, because for the autonomy and camaraderie and experience we shared, there would be a price, on top of anger and frustration from members of the public who accuse us (still!) of being part of some evil scheme.

We knew that eventually, we would all be sent back, to a system burdened even more than before.

Finally, most Australians have enthusiastically been vaccinated with two doses, or at least been dragged in reluctantly (that’s the bit they never show in those pandemic movies!).  Although booster doses await, those times are gone and our hospital system has called most nurses back.

So we hug these unlikely colleagues and friends, with whom we have created an epicentre of community, who came together at the strangest and worst and in some ways, best of times.