As we reflect back on a momentous year, it’s no wonder that Sheila Salonga, Nurse Unit Manager of Epworth Richmond Emergency Department, can’t find a single word to sum it up.

“It’s been very interesting,” she laughs.

“It makes me proud how well we’ve handled this pandemic.”

Sheila has been at the forefront of each pandemic response initiative at Epworth, establishing a clinic for staff and doctors, caring for her team as well as patients and now, co-ordinating the Respiratory Protection Program. She’s no stranger to a health crisis, having lived through the SARs epidemic in 2003.

“I experienced SARS in Singapore and worked in the isolation ward,” Sheila said.

“After that, dealing with COVID-19 was like déjà vu. It was like history repeating itself, but SARS lasted for a shorter time. Similarly, it also infected nurses and doctors and killed people in aged care; it was very scary. It was a really good eye opener to help me deal with this pandemic.”

Now that we’re moving back into normal practices with a COVID-safe mindset, Sheila is reflecting on the year.

“We opened our Epworth staff and VMO Clinic on 30 March 2020, as there were fears COVID-19 case numbers in the community could double or triple.

“Two days before we opened, we started preparing the old emergency department at Epworth Richmond. We didn’t have nurses for the clinic, so I went to every ward asking for staff. We were lucky to gather such a great team.

“The most challenging part of that time was having to review DHHS protocols every day because they were always changing.”

Like many of us, Sheila has experienced some tough times over the past nine months.

“I thought I was a very resilient person; I’ve been a nurse for 25 years in three different countries and different hospitals and thought going through SARS made me stronger. But, I went through a two-week slump, like everyone else,” she said.

“I had to be strong for my team and make sure I was still encouraging and supporting them. I also knew I had to look after myself mentally too, because I went through a period where I was not ok.

“It’s been exhausting mentally and our staff have the ‘battle scars’ on their faces from wearing the N95 masks all the way through, but the way we managed this crisis has been a success for Epworth. We’ve been very conservative, especially on returning to work after any cold and flu symptoms, and that’s been amazing.

“We knew that one mistake or wrong advice could potentially trigger an outbreak, so I’m very thankful we have such a great team at Epworth and we were always well supported by Chief Medical Officer Luis Prado, who was always here with us.”

After swabbing around 9,000 people, the Epworth Staff and VMO clinic has transformed into a perioperative clinic, swabbing surgical patients before their procedures.

The clinic team became very close during this time, supporting each other and building real friendships.

“As we dismantled the team, some of them were crying as they went back to their usual wards,” Sheila said. “It’s been bittersweet.”

Sheila will be returning to her substantive position at Epworth Richmond Emergency Department next month.

“COVID-19 has given me and my team in the Epworth Staff and VMO Clinic an opportunity to give back to our Epworth community. We consider it a privilege to look after our colleagues and support them during this very difficult time.”