When Ashleigh Woods graduated with a nursing degree from Southern Cross University a few years ago, she knew she wanted to make a difference. What she never expected was to be on the frontlines fighting the war against coronavirus.

The 25-year-old is now a registered nurse and midwife at The Tweed Hospital in northern New South Wales. Accredited in advanced life support, Ashleigh has just begun working in an airway role in the resuscitation room in the emergency department. The resuscitation teams include a doctor, nurse, someone dedicated to the patient’s airway, someone looking after their circulation and a team leader.

Ashleigh is just one of the many nurses and other staff now braving the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospital is testing many patients each day. They have a fever clinic and an isolation room for patients awaiting test results. During shifts in the fever clinic the nurses, including Ashleigh, wear multiple pieces of personal protective equipment.

This is Ashleigh’s story.

Ashleigh Woods COVID-19 nurse

It has been quite an emotional time, full of mixed emotions, and I know all of my colleagues are feeling the same way. I have at times felt guilty for feeling scared or worried about coming to work when I know there are many others without work. I sometimes feel I cannot and should not complain about doing my job—because at the end of the day, I am one of the lucky ones to be still earning an income.

We chose nursing as our career and for me, it is my absolute passion, so there would never be any question in continuing to do what I love. We always know in the back of our minds that there could be a “disaster” of some kind and dealing with that is just a part of our job description in a way.

But no amount of study and no university degree can truly prepare you emotionally for the challenges that a global pandemic might present you with.

I have come to realise that feeling scared is a normal process during this situation and it is okay to feel this way, whether you are the most junior nurse on the floor or the doctor in charge of the emergency department. It comforts me to know that there are a lot of hardworking, dedicated people, such as the infection control team and the nurse unit managers, who are working tirelessly and cohesively in the background to ensure that we are protected and that we will be safe during the pandemic. This makes for a great team environment and the multidisciplinary team has really pulled together for this.

A memory that stands out

Caring for my first suspected case of COVID-19 in the isolation area was scary and extremely overwhelming. Dressed in my personal protective equipment, I was the only nurse in the isolation room with the patient. I had a number of things running through my mind and even though I knew I had a support team just around the corner in the main department, being in that little negative pressure room with a patient—who hadn’t yet been confirmed if they were carrying the dreaded virus or not—part of me felt just as isolated as the patient. I definitely began to question myself.

However, with each patient, it is important to remember that they are a human being and you have to treat them as you would treat any other patient. Remembering this is what gets me through caring for these patients. The person you are caring for is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother or partner.

Fears and concerns

I am currently living with my partner. We have a few of our own systems and methods in place to protect him. I get changed before coming home and I put my uniform straight into the washing machine, and shower and wash my hair before talking to or seeing him. This is to minimise the cross-contamination between the hospital and my home. If things became much worse, we would talk about him going to stay with a family member or friend.

There are also the concerns that I myself might become unwell or that I might pass it on to my partner, but I also worry for our department and my colleagues. If the situation becomes erratic quickly, it could be a very tough time for us all both mentally and physically.

I also am concerned about being in public in my uniform (which every other day I am extremely proud to wear). I have learned that I can’t go anywhere without people stopping to ask me about how many cases have been reported and if I am worried about the pandemic in general. It has been advised by our management not to wear the uniform in public because of these reasons, and to protect our safety.

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