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Why Nurses Are Volunteering To Be On The COVID Front Line

With so much still unknown about COVID-19, the virus has understandably sparked fears across the community -- but it hasn't stopped Australia's hero health workers from putting their hands up to be on the front line.

Tiffany McKay is one of the nurses dealing with the coronavirus response at Bendigo Health in Victoria.

Like many of her colleagues at the regional hospital's newly established respiratory ward, McKay volunteered to join, despite the risks surrounding the highly contagious virus.

McKay said the team has been as prepared as possible going into the pandemic -- and knowing what to wear, and what should and shouldn't be done, meant she felt a lot more comfortable going into the ward.

But after 10 years as a nurse, McKay said even outside of the pandemic, her job has taught her to be prepared to deal with all kinds of patients and illnesses on a daily basis.

Tiffany McKay and her colleagues at Bendigo Health on International Nurses Day. Image: Supplied

Asked why she volunteered to work on the front line, McKay said a nurse's role is first and foremost to care for others, and she's willing to do anything to help.

"I volunteered, and most of the others did as well, firstly because even if you do have coronavirus, you do need caring for," McKay told 10 daily on International Nurses Day.

"And if it was our family members, you would like to think people would be willing to put themselves on the front line to help out and to treat people with it."

Tiffany McKay volunteered to work in a dedicated respiratory ward. Image: Supplied.

McKay, who is also a member of the Australian College of Nursing, said she's never seen anything like the pandemic in her entire career, but it's brought out the best in her colleagues.

"It's a good experience to know you are able to step up and show strength that you didn't know you had," she said.

I haven't seen anything like this. It's crazy. And I think we are very very lucky that our numbers didn't escalate as they did in Europe and other countries, where it took off and it got really scary."

But while McKay said it's great to see the numbers fall, and believes her region is capable of dealing with any new cases, it's a nervous wait knowing that the lifting of restrictions will likely mean more outbreaks.

"We don't know what's out there, and we don't know enough about the virus, so we've just got to be very careful," she said.

"We don't want to make those choices about who to treat because we don't have room."

'It's Very Draining'

Working in a hospital during the pandemic can be uniquely draining, both physically and emotionally, McKay said.

Watching sick patients, even in their final moments, not being allowed visits from loved ones, has been an emotional sucker-punch.

"There have been situations where patients have passed away in hospital, not due to COVID," she said. "It's very difficult."

She added that cases are assessed day by day, and sometimes one family member is allowed to sit with a patient as they are dying.

"We stopped visitors pretty early on, and initially a lot of family members were really supportive, but there were the odd ones who... you could just tell weren't happy with the situation.

"And I feel for the people, not just in the hospital, but out in the community who have lost [loved ones], and are not able to celebrate their life at a funeral.

That would be heartbreaking.

And for many frontline workers, the physical demands of wearing personal protective gear at all times can be exhausting.

"The biggest thing I've noticed is the donning and doffing of all the PPE," McKay said.

Along with their normal uniforms, nurses are layered with a long-sleeve gown and a plastic gown on top, which is changed between visits to every room.

Nurses must also wear masks, goggles, hats and gloves, and while not every patient tested necessarily has coronavirus, for the purposes of safety, they are treated as if they do.

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"It's very time-consuming. It can make you feel so tired, and having the mask on all the time, it can be difficult to breathe and it feels really hot," McKay said.

"After a while, it just becomes second-nature, which is great, but you have always got to be mindful that you're doing it the right way."

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But McKay said it's not her work that's been the most taxing.

"Mentally, because you're separated from loves ones, that's been the toughest thing for me," she said.

"You go to work, you do your job and you come home. You can catch up with family on FaceTime, but it's not the same as being able to hold them and being right next to them."

Our Nurses Are In A Battle Every Day

Tuesday is International Nurses Day -- a day that shines a light on the vital work of our frontline responders, Australian College of Nursing CEO Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward said.

"Nurses across the country have been the cornerstone of Australia’s battle against COVID-19.

"Our frontline nurses have shone, working in challenging conditions to keep us all safe. We have seen an extraordinary response from our nursing community across the country during this time and we acknowledge and thank them for their expertise, professionalism, quick-thinking and tireless work."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also gave his thanks on Tuesday, saying nurses were "on the front line of this tremendous fight."

"I want to thank our nurses for what you do every single day," he said.

There are 380,000 nurse across Australia. Whether you're in a major city or remote community, a maternity unit, or importantly palliative care, a mental health team, aged care facility or an oncology ward, my message is the same. Thank you.

McKay said while coronavirus has been catastrophic across the world, it's shone a positive light on the important work of nurses in the community.

"It's not just during the pandemic, it's all the time... on a day-to-day basis, we could be nursing people with contagious diseases that we don't know about," she said.

"We are a big team, so if the community does the right thing, nurses won't be inundated. Every single nurse out there should be congratulated for the work they've done, and how adaptable they've been to this change."

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au