Holding hands with the dying: Nurses bring home horrors of COVID-19

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It was an unexpected moment of raw emotion that cut through the mundanity of another daily coronavirus press conference and encapsulated the tragedy of the pandemic better than any politician ever could.

As she spoke to journalists at the Treasury Theatre late on Sunday morning, Royal Melbourne Hospital nursing manager Michelle Spence’s voice wavered, her eyes filled with tears.

Dressed in navy-blue scrubs, the senior nurse paused to compose herself and apologised to reporters after being overcome by emotion as she recalled the lonely deaths of those succumbing to coronavirus.

“We have had people die in our [intensive care units] by themselves, and we held their hands while their families have to be at home,” Ms Spence said. “That is absolutely not what this should be about. Loved ones deserve to have their families with them when they die.”

Increasingly, the senior nurse said, she was caring for young coronavirus patients who were begging to be vaccinated moments before they were intubated and hooked up to life support, unsure if they would survive the disease.

Etched in her memory was a young, fit tradesman in his 30s, who was pleading for the vaccine last week.

Nurses Michelle Spence (left) and Jacqui Harper.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“He didn’t get vaccinated, and now he’s on life support,” Ms Spence told the press conference on Sunday. “One of the saddest things I’ve seen in the last few weeks is people begging for the vaccine right before we put them on life support.

“I’ve seen it myself, they’re begging for the vaccination, they are very young, and once we get to that point where we are about to put them on life support, it really is too late. Their families are remorseful, they’re begging us to get them the vaccination.”

It is a grim reality unfolding every day in Melbourne’s hospitals. Senior nurses on the front line of the crisis warn it will only get worse in coming months as hospitals brace for record numbers of coronavirus patients.

Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria chief executive Glenn Taylor said the service had been inundated in recent weeks by Victorian nurses struggling with their mental health after working beyond exhaustion.

“We know there are also a whole heap of nurses who are just too exhausted to pick up the phone and reach out for help,” he said. “There is no clear finish line in sight.”

On Sunday, there were 476 people in hospital with COVID-19, 98 of whom are in intensive care, including 57 on a ventilator.

Twelve teenagers are in hospital with the virus, along with 22 people in their 20s. There were also 64 patients in their 30s, only one of whom was fully vaccinated, and 60 patients in their 40s, none of whom were fully vaccinated.

As new infections of coronavirus soared above 1000 for the fourth consecutive day on Sunday, Ms Spence revealed nurses who had never worked in intensive care were being asked to work on the ward after just four days of training. Extra beds were being opened every day at the Royal Melbourne Hospital as the numbers of the gravely ill kept climbing.

The hospital will open another intensive care ward this week amid discussions to fly in Queensland nurses to help.

On Sunday, the hospital had 135 coronavirus patients, including eight critically ill in the emergency department who were still waiting for beds.

On top of rising numbers of COVID-19 patients, since August, the hospital also had to secure another 750 beds for people who had suffered strokes, heart attacks, those who were trauma patients and others hospitalised for cancer treatment.

“Those patients do not go away, they absolutely need our care as well, and we need beds available for every patient,” Ms Spence said.

Ms Spence said she had seen people aged in their 20s and 30s hospitalised with the coronavirus and warned the disease does not discriminate between young and old.

“They’re begging for the vaccination, but once we get to that point, it is too late,” she said. “This could be you, if you’re waiting. It is your window to not be this person.”

In the coronavirus epicentre in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, nurse Jacqui Harper has witnessed patients go from “sitting in a chair one minute” to saying their goodbyes an hour later.

Last week, more than a dozen ambulances were ramped outside the Northern Hospital waiting to offload patients as triple-zero calls on Monday night reached levels across the state not seen since 2016.

“COVID-19 is a terrible illness,” Ms Harper said. “The patients we see coming into our hospitals are seriously, seriously ill. The clinical deterioration is so sudden.”

The Northern Hospital in Epping is treating 70 patients in COVID wards, along with five in intensive care.

Ms Harper said many patients had expressed regret at not being vaccinated.

“COVID is real, it’s affecting younger age groups and it’s scary,” she said.

A recent survey of more than 7800 Australian healthcare workers, most based in Victoria, found more than 40 per cent had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, although few recognised them as such.

Ms Spence said healthcare workers were braced for a “tough time” between now and Christmas.

The number of new infections is expected to keep climbing until a peak later this month. That peak is projected to happen about the same time the state hits the target for 70 per cent of the population aged 16 and over being fully vaccinated.

“I know you’re over it,” she said. “We’re over it. It’s going to be a tough few months.

“We are begging you to go out and do the one thing you can do for yourself, your loved ones and your healthcare system. Get vaccinated.”

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