Going back to work in a hospital after having COVID-19

Sally* is a radiographer at a major hospital in Melbourne. Like so many of her colleagues, she has been fighting against the coronavirus pandemic since February. She also happens to be one of the many healthcare workers in Australia who tested positive to COVID-19.

After quarantining for two weeks, she recently returned to the hospital as an employee.

This is her story.

Illustration of female healthcare worker in front of skyscrapers

Mid February 2020 – early days

Sally notices a new trend at the hospital. Over the last few days, there has been an increasing number of returned travellers from Wuhan, China being tested for coronavirus. Many are returning positive results.

At this stage, knowledge around COVID-19 is scarce. The healthcare system in Australia is working around the clock, learning as much as they can about the disease. Yet people are unclear about the symptoms, about seeing others. About everything. For frontline workers, it’s unsettling.

Sally and her colleagues manage. They are used to fighting against diseases that are hard to find and hard to combat. However there are elements of COVID-19 emerging that make it different to anything Sally had experienced.

“All healthcare workers go into it to take care of people. But to be told you might die from something patients could pass on to you is not what you sign up for. To be confronted with your own mortality at the age of 25 is pretty intense.”

There are other issues too. Many in the community are uncertain around how the virus is spreading, and are therefore fearful of those in the healthcare system. In some cases, anger is being directed towards healthcare workers. To the point where hospital staff are told not to walk to their cars alone. Not to wear their scrubs home or to have their work ID visible.

Healthcare worker wearing mask catching the tram to work

“It's pretty depressing to walk out of work and think there's someone out there who could hurt me for coming to work to look after other people,” Sally says.

Early June 2020 – restrictions ease

The Victorian Government announces that restrictions will ease. Pubs and restaurants will reopen for dining. People can have guests over to their homes. There’s an overwhelming sense of relief.

There’s time to reflect too. Despite planning for a mass influx of patients in the ICU, the numbers at Sally’s hospital were relatively small.

Still, Sally is on edge.

Illustration of female healthcare worker in hospital writing on a chart

“There was definitely some pressure relieved but most of us were still staying away from our families. As much as the messaging from the government was that numbers were coming down, when you work in a hospital you have greater awareness of infection control, and you know how contagious it can be. It changes your attitude towards it.”

This cautious approach means Sally’s mindset doesn’t change much. Though she is quietly thrilled about her new-found freedoms.

“I was super excited to go to the pub and have a beer. Going out for brunch on weekends (even with a time limit), meeting up with a group of friends, was all pretty exciting,” she says.

“But for the most part, I didn’t do as much as I could have because in the back of my mind I was always thinking we’re probably going to go back to a second wave. It didn’t feel like it was over.”

Mid July 2020 – a second wave and testing positive

It’s been several weeks since Victoria’s case numbers exploded and Stage 4 restrictions were introduced. The mood among hospital staff is dispirited. Most were expecting to go back into lockdown. But not to this extent.

The ICU is converted into a COVID ward for positive patients. Compared to the first wave, patients are far sicker, especially as the numbers rise in aged care homes.

Illustration of female healthcare worker watching woman on ventilator being treated

A number of staff in the emergency department at Sally’s hospital test positive to COVID-19. Not yet eligible for regular asymptomatic testing, Sally starts to feel nervous.

“I’d come home and feel like I had to take a shower in bleach. I felt covered in coronavirus. I felt contaminated.”

Sally starts to feel the mildest of symptoms. She decides to go and get swabbed straight away. She thinks she’s being dramatic, exaggerating her symptoms for peace of mind. Then she waits.

“Usually, you get a text message and it just says you’re all clear. That’s what I was expecting. I didn’t actually think it was going to come back positive.”

But it does.

Sally calls her boss to provide contact tracing details. The DHHS get in touch to tell her she will be put up in Hotel for Heroes, the accommodation provided to infected healthcare workers.

“It was a huge relief from a mental health perspective, because otherwise I would’ve had to stay with my housemates and infected them.”

Late July 2020 – quarantining

Five of Sally’s colleagues are identified as being at risk due to close contact. They are no longer eligible to be at work and find rooms in quarantine quickly. Sally doesn’t.

“I had to stay in my bedroom at home for about 48 hours, until they found a room for me. I didn’t use the kitchen or anything, because I was so scared about giving it to anyone,” says Sally.

“It was weird to feel trapped in my own room.”

This concern is compounded for Sally, as she’s not super close with her housemates. They get along fine, but you wouldn’t call them best friends.

“My housemates were understandably terrified they'd already caught it. Then to tell them that they had to isolate, that they weren't allowed to leave the house, that they’d have to get groceries delivered. I just felt terrible,” she says.

A room through Hotel for Heroes finally becomes available. Fortunately, Sally is prepared to combat boredom. She takes in a guitar, books and a laptop. She even practices German, which she has studied in the past. She does yoga everyday and her friends organise regular trivia nights. She also dives into mindfulness.

Illustration of female healthcare worker looking out window of hotel;

“I'm a big overthinker, so to just get stuff off my chest and down on paper was helpful. I didn’t want to make anyone feel like they had to support me mentally, because it’s a pandemic and everyone’s dealing with their own mental health issues.”

Late August – returning to work

After three and a half weeks, Sally is allowed to leave quarantine and go home. She expects it to be a relief. But it’s not that simple.

“I think I went into some kind of mental survival mode when I was in quarantine. I didn't really feel much – I just felt kind of numb. I lasted about two hours back at home and then cried for like four hours.” she says.

Even though she’s not concerned about contracting the virus again, Sally is apprehensive about going back to work. Once she enters the hospital, this feeling passes.

“Walking in for the first time and seeing everyone’s faces light up and come running over was great. Obviously we couldn’t hug, but there were plenty of affectionate foot taps,” says Sally.

“There was also a lot of curiosity from staff about what it was actually like to have COVID, because even though we’re surrounded by it, it’s not something you can really ask a patient about.”

While her colleagues are pleased to see her back, not everyone reacts this way. Sally is surprised at the stigma the virus still holds in some situations.

“When you mention you've had COVID to some people, you can see their eyes widen. They look like they want to take about three steps back and avoid you for the rest of the day,” she says.

“I definitely have more of an understanding now for people not wanting to say they’ve had it.”

*Sally is a pseudonym. She is still working at the hospital.

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