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Thank you Australia from a young rural doctor on the COVID-19 frontline

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In late February I sat at the dining table in our small weatherboard cottage, looking out the back windows to our green garden, newly refreshed by some long-awaited rain following a summer of being ravaged by smoke, heat and drought.

Like Dorothea Mackellar, I do love my sunburnt country; but green is such a renewing colour to look at. An old school friend was visiting with her family, all the way from Italy.

The four adults, their three children and my one were all crammed into our house, sprawling across the sofa and spilling out onto the back deck in the familiar frenetic chaos of having houseguests which, just weeks later, would feel alien and forbidden.

Flicking through my phone, I saw a post on one of my medical groups on social media. It was about why we should be worried about COVID-19.

The reason I remember that moment is because before I read the article, I wasn’t sure whether or not the whole thing was just a storm in a teacup. I was sure after that article; this was a proper storm, no teacups in sight.

From there, the whole thing gathered pace. Slowly at first, and then with terrifying rapidity.

The Emergency Department that I work in started to change; again, slowly, with corridor whispers and casual discussions and occasional reports via old medical school friends of the consultants, who were working overseas and seeing things which made my heart beat faster when relayed in hushed tones. Then more rapidly—our established workplace systems started to evolve and new phrases crept into our lexicon; flatten the curve, mitigation, lockdown.

The world became interested in how intubation and ventilation work. I became fascinated with tracking the unfolding disaster and spent hours reading and listening, trying to get a grasp on what this enemy was.

My mind raced constantly in the beginning, in solidarity with the rest of the world; what about my elderly grandparents, living alone? What about my parents? My gorgeous two-year-old? What if I brought it home? What about the expensive exam I’d spent months and months studying for?

What if the whole system became completely overwhelmed and my sister-in-law had to deliver her baby at home, on the farm, and I had to help? (Yes. An actual thought from an overloaded brain!).

What about my colleagues and med school friends? And the all-consuming background theme—what, exactly, was I about to be asked to do?

Emergency Departments are full of brave, flexible, adaptable people who are used to high pressure, high-risk circumstances and can deal with decent doses of uncertainty.

Watching my workplace pivot, adapt, and face the coming threat with steely determination was awe-inspiring. The willingness to continue to turn up to work despite the fear and anxiety was incredible.

It has been an honour to work as a part of a team who takes their responsibility to the community so seriously, and who work so tirelessly to ensure excellent care regardless of circumstances. One of the things I’ve learnt during COVID-19 is that that last phrase was true long before the pandemic.

Doctors and nurses sacrifice huge amounts to be able to care for people. Before the pandemic, we turned up to care for sick, injured, and dying people.

When my mother quietly lamented that I couldn’t stop working and move to the family farm to be safe and distant, I realised the thought of leaving my workplace hadn’t even occurred to me. I doubt it occurred to many of my colleagues either. This was just a continuation of what we do; what we trained for.

On a night shift recently, a colleague expressed to me his discomfort at all the thanks. And indeed, there has been a lot of thanks. Free food sent to the department. Flowers (and actual flour) on my front doorstep. My lawn mown by a neighbour. Texts and cards and birthday presents in the mail. News articles about frontline workers. Media personalities publicly thanking healthcare workers.

All of it is lovely, and kind, and part of the beauty that can come out of horrendous things; appreciation for the people who are helping us is important. But as my colleague pointed out, we haven’t actually done anything particularly extraordinary.

We have learnt to put PPE on more fastidiously than previously. We’ve done a few shifts completely dressed in the stuff—which, by the way, is akin to working in a large garbage bag; both in comfort and in the way it affects one’s coordination and communication.

We’ve overhauled systems and tried to manage our personal and professional anxieties about the uncertain future. But compared to our colleagues overseas, we’ve been spared—and that is thanks to the community we serve. It is thanks to Australians who’ve lost their jobs, tried desperately to homeschool their children and conduct their own work simultaneously, who’ve learnt to bake bread, battled their loneliness, struggled with cabin fever, felt their mental health deteriorate, and yearned for family they can’t see.

It’s thanks to millions of people who’ve made millions of sacrifices. It feels strange to be the one who is being thanked, when actually, I’ve been spared. Spared from treating my colleagues, who by nature of their jobs are high risk.

Spared from seeing multiple patients gasping for air with no access to life-saving measures. Spared from watching people die scared and alone because visitors aren’t allowed.

So, if I may be so bold, on behalf of Australia’s healthcare workers—thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

For Australia, at least for now, it feels as though the initial, all-consuming blaze has started to settle into glowing embers; although make no mistake—those embers are still hot. The future remains uncertain and life may never return to how it used to be. But we should remember—the world has changed before, it will change again. Certainty and security have always been somewhat of an illusion anyway.

After working in an Emergency Department, I am keenly aware of the uncertainty and fragility of life and the way it can be altered unexpectedly and irreversibly. At the core, we remain at the mercy of the whims of nature and forces entirely beyond our control.

Admittedly I usually see this play out on an individual level and the current corporate reality is somewhat more confronting, but nonetheless, the resilience of humanity is an astounding thing. And despite the horrors and the difficulties and the pain of 2020 thus far, I can’t help but hold out hope for the future of our vast and complicated world, along with a large dose of curiosity about how this one virus might alter history’s course.

In the meantime, I shall continue to gaze at the vibrant green that the earth has produced as it recovers from the ravages of drought and fire, and remind myself that this too shall pass.

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