South Sydney ICU nurse details 'devastating' impact of COVID-19 on patients, staff

Picture: Chris Lane
Picture: Chris Lane

Premier Gladys Berejiklian says Sydney's hospitals are well-prepared for the expected surge of COVID-19 cases, but intensive care nurses have a different view.

Nurses penned an open letter to the Premier earlier this week stating, "it is our professional conclusion that ICUs were in crisis before the current COVID-19 pandemic... the added demands of the pandemic, testing capacity and surging admissions is forcing our clinical workforce to the brink."

A south Sydney ICU nurse and NSW Nurses Midwives Association member, who responded to the Leader on the condition of anonymity, said the impact of the virus had been 'devastating' for patients and hospital staff.

"We are tired mentally and physically. Yet, we come to work risking our health and our families to treat and care for the sick that are extremely contagious," she said.

"One wrong removal or misplaced personal protection equipment can lead to us being in a hospital bed next to them.

"We see our patients die, but instead of the patient's family support them and holding their hands for comfort in their last moments of life; they are held by our hands - in rubber gloves - while we hold back our tears, not wanting anyone to experience what we do daily."

In recent weeks COVID patients from across Sydney have been diverted to other hospitals as emergency departments reach capacity.

Dr Nhi Nguyen addressed the media at a press conference this week to discuss the predicted surge of cases needing care in the state's Intensive Care Units (ICU).

"When you hear about patients being diverted to other emergency departments, that's the system working," she said.

"We've identified areas that can be used if we reach surge capacity, areas that we can expand into.

"I am confident that we have plans in place. Over coming weeks we will work on those plans and refine them."

The nurse said that there was currently not enough ICU beds at Liverpool Hospital, in particular, to cater for the expected surge in case numbers unless other departments were moved.

She said Liverpool Hospital's ICU could hold up to 60 patients

"Since COVID-19, it has become more difficult to have the appropriate and crucial equipment and physical bed space that is completely stocked for frontline staff to provide the high-quality care we, as ICU Registered Nurses, are expected to do," she said.

"Additionally, with this particular strain of COVID-19, the patients are staying in the hospital longer and will require intense medical and respiratory rehabilitation treatment, which can only be provided within the ICU.

"Therefore, instead of patients being transferred out of the ICU within three days, the COVID-19 patients become long term patients and can stay for weeks to months. Therefore, potentially creating a problem with bed blocking."

The ICU nurse also stated that staff shortages were becoming an issue as the pandemic continued.

"Even before COVID-19, Liverpool Hospital ICU had a chronic shortage of staff," she said.

"As we speak, former ICU staff members and recovery and operating theatre (OT) nurses are being trained to assist in the ICU.

"However, considering recovery and OT nurses are their own specialisation, their daily duties are far from the care which is required to care for the ICUs high dependence patients."

She said while ICU staff were thankful for the redeployment of these nurses, it was having a negative effect on the unit as well.

"Due to the poor skill mix and lack of training provided, it's extremely dangerous, and there have been mistakes which could lead to a patient's health and well-being deteriorating in a dire state," she said.

"ICU is a specialised field. Even a 'stable' ICU patient can suddenly become a critically ill patient.

"Unfortunately, these particular staff members are not trained to care for the critically unwell, which can increase strain and pressure on the regular ICU staff, or consequently can be detrimental to the patient's health.

"You cannot replace senior and skilled ICU staff members with any nurse. If our government does not take serious action, it will cost lives.

"We need physical and mental support. We need the right equipment, and we need trained ICU nurses to help us to win this battle against COVID-19."