Step by step, Vinnies staff fight a pandemic

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At the coalface: Left to Right: Principal Hospital Scientist Damien Stark, Incident Response Manager Rachel MacFarlane, Respiratory/Sleep Physician Katrina Tonga, Operational Transformation and Service Innovation Manager Sarah Sweeney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
At the coalface: Left to Right: Principal Hospital Scientist Damien Stark, Incident Response Manager Rachel MacFarlane, Respiratory/Sleep Physician Katrina Tonga, Operational Transformation and Service Innovation Manager Sarah Sweeney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

St Vincent’s Hospital has been instrumental in responding to Sydney’s Delta wave, leading the response to the Bondi cluster that sparked our city’s months of lockdown, and increasing vaccination and testing rates.

With Sydney restrictions easing and the load on St Vincent’s doctors and nurses relaxing, The Catholic Weekly spoke to four St Vincent’s staff about their experiences during the recent lockdowns: the stresses, the achievements, and lessons learned.

Respiratory/Sleep Physician Katrina Tonga. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Respiratory/Sleep Physician Katrina Tonga. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Katrina Tonga, Respiratory/Sleep Physician

I was part of the COVID team at the hospital involved with taking care of patients who were admitted to the ward – so, before they needed to come to the intensive care unit (ICU), when they came through the emergency department.

We had to change the wards, create bubbles so that patients were in negative pressure rooms. That was all really new to us.

We had to unzip the bubbles, go into an antechamber – we’d never done anything like this, not on this scale. We’re not used to wearing these gowns with the mask, and facial shields.

We were speaking to patients from a phone outside the door.

“I’m Tongan and our culture is very family oriented. Seeing people in there who couldn’t see their families – that was hard.”

There were patients whose whole family were in different hospitals. So mum was here, dad was in another hospital, and the kids were at Westmead being looked after because there was no one else to look after them.

We had patients pass away in hospital, with a family member in ICU. You’d have to call the person in ICU to say, sorry, your family member’s about to pass away.

I’m Tongan and our culture is very family oriented. Seeing people in there who couldn’t see their families – that was hard.

But as a team, everyone worked well together, you know. We just had to get on with it and work together.

Principal Hospital Scientist Damien Stark. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Principal Hospital Scientist Damien Stark. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Damien Stark, Principal Hospital Scientist

I run the microbiology department. I’m Principal Hospital Scientist there, in charge of all the diagnostic microbiology and all the laboratory testing.

With the COVID pandemic, we’ve had to ramp up our testing. We’ve processed over 1.1 million COVID tests.

Prior to the pandemic, we were processing about 200 respiratory samples per day. We had to increase our capacity to about 10,000 per day.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support from the hospital.”

We’ve had over 4500 positive COVID samples come through the lab with no issues. We’re running 24/7 to get those results out.

We’re very proud of the response, considering we’re a small hospital laboratory. For us to provide the level of service that we have has been remarkable.

We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support from the hospital.

We know we’re playing an important role. It’s a one in a hundred year pandemic event, and we’ve stood up and performed remarkably well.

Incident Response Manager Rachel MacFarlane. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Incident Response Manager Rachel MacFarlane. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Rachel MacFarlane, Incident Response Manager

I’m the Incident Response Manager here at the Darlinghurst campus. My colleague and I have set up all our COVID testing clinics and we have done a lot of outreach.

I’ve just returned from Parklea Correctional Centre after their outbreak.

My boss rang me and said, “We need someone to be the incident controller out there. And can you go tomorrow? You’ll be gone probably 10 days.”

That 10 days ended up turning into, I think, two months. I probably had about two hours of sleep a night and they were long days.

“The hardest thing has been the impact on my family and personal life. We planned to take the kids to the snow for the school holidays. They ended up getting shipped to the country to stay with my family so we could work.”

The longest days we did were at the start of Delta. I was down at Heathcote vaccinating a nursing home, when I got the call about the limousine driver [considered to be patient zero of the recent outbreak].

I went straight to our clinic at Bondi, and was there until midnight. Then I was doing 16 hour days, six days a week, wearing full PPE in the sun, in the rain.

The hardest thing has been the impact on my family and personal life. We planned to take the kids to the snow for the school holidays. They ended up getting shipped to the country to stay with my family so we could work.

I’ll be very, very excited to have a holiday.

Operational Transformation and Service Innovation Manager Sarah Sweeney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Operational Transformation and Service Innovation Manager Sarah Sweeney. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Sarah Sweeney, Operational Transformation and Service Innovation Manager

Last year I worked in the emergency operations centre and when this wave began, my boss needed someone to get it set up again.

Basically, every day we huddle into a scrum with a lot of the senior managers in the hospital, to push, “What are the requirements? What’s the time frames?” Every day for the last four months.

When Delta came in it was like, “Oh yes, is this really coming?” And then we’re like, “All right, we’re now back on red alert.”

We had to drop business as usual, and make sure everyone was upskilled. For example, you would do a lot of work around setting up a COVID ward.

We set one up and held it empty for a while – with signage, and with doors and processes.

This year we had that plan in place, but Delta really just changed everything.

Last year, early on, we didn’t realise as much that it was such an airborne disease. Now we know that the whole ward has to be closed down. You have to care for patients in a way that we’ve probably never had to at this scale.

“The best part about it was you didn’t have to balance a social life, because there just wasn’t one. So you just keep working.”

Within a hospital, you have to be able to respond to a potential exposure from a staff member or a patient who is a positive case and doesn’t develop symptoms for a couple of days.

There was a week or two where we had, within 12 hours, four events. We had a staff member, and then another staff member, and then a patient. And then another staff member. You basically have to do a contact tracing event in the hospital.

The adrenaline! It’s really important that we talk about it. You have to recognise what adrenaline does to you and that extreme peak of tiredness, exhaustion, and those couple of really late nights of contact tracing.

So definitely after the last four months, the last week or so I’ve come down off the adrenaline rush.

It has been exciting. The best part about it was you didn’t have to balance a social life, because there just wasn’t one. So you just keep working.

When we look back and we think, “Why did things work so well?” It’s because of the really long hours and very hard work, from the whole team.