‘Eerily quiet’: Hidden danger in pandemic
It was the start of the coronavirus pandemic and "eerily" quiet in the Frankston Hospital emergency department.
The more serious heart attack or stroke patients weren't coming through the doors.
"We weren't sure where they'd gone," says emergency physician Dr Olga Gaitsgory.
"We were really worried people were staying home because they were worried about catching COVID-19 at hospital.
"It was a big concern for everyone in all EDs in the state."
While things have picked up since then at the busy Victorian hospital - in terms of those kinds of cases - it's still not the same, and Dr Gaitsgory has a message for people as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
"Please come to us," she says.
"We're safe. A lot of harm can come from delaying medical care because you're scared of coming to hospital. That's the last thing we want."
Her concerns are among the flow-on effects of the pandemic that doctors across the country - and the world - fear.
The initial worry over a dangerous, unknown virus sweeping the world has subsided for those on the frontline who now better know what they're dealing with.
And with Victoria recording its 12th day in a row of no new coronavirus cases and no further deaths as of Wednesday, things are looking good on that front.
"It's been a really intense, challenging year," she says.
"It was a really welcoming and supportive environment but the pandemic was picking up. We were in the early stages of planning and so much work went into getting all these processes ready.
"From changing staffing and rosters, to changing how we triage patients, where they go, how they walk around the department - it's been a constantly evolving process.
"But everyone's been amazing, trying to stay positive and be flexible."
The words critical care registered nurse Admire Marume uses to describe his year are similar.
"It's been very hectic and stressful," he says, having worked in the resuscitation area at Frankston.
Mr Marume has cared for patients with coronavirus, all the while having two kids at home aged eight and 10.
"We got overwhelmed, and there was a crazy information overload, sometimes conflicting information (on the virus)," he says.
"Just the amount of patients. We had everyone rocking up thinking they had the virus and you can't turn them back.
"No one really knew how it was transmitted, how we were meant to handle things, if we had to intubate someone what we'd need, the full PPE (personal protective equipment)."
After information had come from "left, right and centre", Mr Marume said the hospital had one person communicating everything which was a tremendous help and daily updates were posted for his team.
The hospital had an outbreak of the virus in August that forced huge number of staff to isolate.
For healthcare workers like registered nurse Aman Deep Kaur, who works in the casual pool at Blacktown Hospital in western Sydney, while the pandemic has been challenging, it's also been rewarding.
"In the beginning it was a bit scary and challenging but one thing that keeps me going is wanting to keep the community safe," she says.
"I'm really honoured to get this opportunity as a frontline worker."
In one of her shifts she says they swabbed about 200 people in eight hours and could "see people had the fear on their faces".
'METICULOUS CARE' WITH EVERYTHING
The world faced PPE panic when the pandemic took hold, as hospitals dealt with shortages of equipment and navigated how to treat patients safely.
For Aussie healthcare workers, it's been an ongoing issue.
Dr Gaitsgory explains that with everyone screened when they arrived, if they answer yes to any coronavirus-related questions, they're treated as a suspected case.
"That net is cast really wide so we end up looking after a lot of them in PPE," she says.
"It's really challenging to work in PPE anyway. We try and segregate everything, from pens to equipment, to clean and contaminated.
"Every step of the way we're being really careful about what we're using, touching."
Mr Marume says caring for anyone with coronavirus has been "very stressful" for both staff and patients.
"You just take meticulous care," he says.
"Someone oversees you putting on and taking off your protective gear. The danger is when you're taking it off."
He says the main issue is with communication because inside the sealed off patient area they can't write notes on the computer and have to phone to communicate outside.
"As you can imagine the patient can be stressed," he says.
"If you see them coming into resuscitation they are fairly sick. It's a very high chance they'll need assistance with their breathing or be intubated, but if someone collapses you don't rush. Pre-COVID you would get to them quickly but you can't do that now."
THE PPE OBSESSION
If you're one of those people who have struggled with wearing a mask, spare a thought for the new normal for our healthcare workers.
Mr Marume says he showers when he finishes at the hospital, puts on new clothes, has another shower at home and puts his clothes straight in the wash.
He changes his shoes in the car.
"It's sort of an obsession but it's become normal life now," he says.
Dr Gaitsgory says everyone has a different contamination routine and she counts her own car as contaminated and her partner doesn't use it.
When she gets home her clothes go in a bin in the garage and her shoes in plastic bag.
The hospital has tents outdoors with showers if staff want to decontaminate there.
"Everything takes a bit longer and people do feel the strain," she says.
"When you personally feel stressed you know your colleagues are feeling it too."
'GREATER ACTS OF KINDNESS'
Despite everything, Mr Marume says in the end "it's a rewarding experience that we're actually providing a service to the community".
"You look back and you always follow up on the patients and it gives you so much joy knowing they're doing well," he says.
"You've done CPR and hear they're coming for a follow-up makes you feel great.
"These are unique and difficult times we're living in and we have to stay true to our values -
not let anxiety drive our interactions. One thing I've noted is greater acts of kindness."
Dr Gaitsgory says they've received kind notes from schoolkids and had locals dropping off food.
Ms Deep Kaur says she takes immense pride in what's she doing, having never known she'd face something like it.
"You're not only making a difference for our nation, you're helping keep the international community safe as well," she says.
Originally published as 'Eerily quiet': Hidden danger in pandemic