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Remedy  •  21 February 2021  •  Non-Fiction

Don’t Cough in My Face!

Confessions of a Student Nurse

By Fiona Ryan
Content Warning: Mental illness
Don’t Cough in My Face!

COVID-19 was an invisible and uncontrolled threat that rapidly transformed into a pandemic. We were at its mercy and somehow, we came to the conclusion that bulk-buying toilet paper and pasta was the most logical solution. Heck, we fought over toilet paper like it was the vaccine itself. 

As a student nurse, having toilet paper was the least of my concerns in 2020. If you thought your degree got mucked about by COVID-19, spare a thought for your fellow nursing and midwifery students. In the week that UTS classes were suspended for ‘remodelling,’ 3149 nursing and midwifery students were uncertain if they could complete their studies this year at all. Clinical placements were as unpredictable as the virus itself. You didn’t know if your allocation would be changed the night before, or even the day of your placement. It felt like complete chaos, but surprisingly I wasn’t scared of heading onto the front line. I am certainly not the only nursing student who felt immense pressure upon going into a hospital mid-pandemic. 

It was very clear there would be no tolerance for errors despite being a student. Infection control was critical. I felt constantly watched and analysed by staff; they seemed wary about having student nurses around infectious, COVID-query patients. I ended up caring for those very patients who had symptoms, had been tested and were awaiting results to confirm if they had COVID-19.

What’s unsettling is that I felt safer caring for COVID-query patients (with my mask and protective gear on) than I did caring for two elderly patients who regularly coughed without covering their mouths. One man coughed directly into my face and thought nothing of it...during a pandemic. He didn’t even apologise. On the outside I kept smiling, but on the inside, I was disgusted. I washed my face, scrubbing it raw, and let the feelings of frustration and distress disappear down the drain with the soapy water. 

Every job has hazards, and for me, nursing sometimes requires me to put my own health on the line for the sake of others. It’s something I do without a second thought. So, I did the best I could and forced myself
to move on.

After recovering from the trauma of being coughed on, I commenced my mental health placement. Let’s be honest, who hasn’t struggled with their mental health to some degree in 2020? Unfortunately, some of us struggled more than others; a reality that hit hard during my time in the mental health ward. I felt optimistic about making things a little brighter for those around me. So, I took a step back from the professional and formal approach to nursing I was used to. Instead, I decided to embrace a more relaxed and humorous demeanour, which aided me in bringing smiles and laughter to a very solemn place. I spent most of my time on the opposite side of the safety glass, with the patients. I didn’t want to shelter myself in the nursing station.

I enjoyed nothing more than getting a group of patients outside for a game of UNO. We made so much noise that staff would tell us off. The patients mingled, laughed, and for a brief moment got to escape their own challenges, the pandemic, and their dull daily routine. For me, it was a reminder of how resilient human beings are; we can still pull through after facing a new virus and simultaneously overcome our inner turmoils and mental disturbances.

“Every job has hazards, and for me, nursing sometimes requires me to put my own health on the line for the sake of others.”

This year was particularly demanding with the added pressure of COVID-19 on our healthcare system. My fellow healthcare workers were stretched to capacity, so I found myself working harder than ever to help ease their workload. After each shift my body would ache from moving around all day. I lost sleep stressing over the possibility I might expose my family to the virus by being on the front-line. I became emotionally invested in all of my patients and in turn, lost sight of my own emotional needs. For a brief moment, I contemplated if pursuing a nursing career would wear me down. Was I signing myself up for a future of grueling work? Would my efforts make a difference to those I cared for?

Just when I found myself at an all-time low, I received the most beautiful letter from a young girl I was caring for during my mental health placement. I was touched by her words of appreciation for my company and dedication. For the first time in my nursing journey, I let myself cry in front of a patient. I always pushed myself to remain strong and resilient but I felt immense relief from exposing some vulnerability in front of her. I still treasure her letter. It continues to motivate me through my studies and this pandemic. I’m sure it will continue to do so in my future career. 

Having spent over 120 hours on the front-line, I feel relieved to know that my efforts have been noticed and appreciated. Healthcare workers are no longer the unsung heroes of our society. It is extremely telling that our society has a newfound appreciation of all healthcare workers in light of COVID-19. This has been the one change 2020 brought that I’m grateful for. 

Let’s not forget about our healthcare workers once this pandemic is declared over. Let’s continue to recognise and praise them in the media and in our personal lives. And, let’s try to make sure our healthcare workers aren’t too over-worked in 2021.

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