Out there in society life goes on. But Covid continues to wreak its havoc on a frontline hospital
Staff at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, feel like they are in a “parallel universe” to the rest of Sydney as acute COVID-19 admissions rise and “shattered” staff are required to maintain strict protective protocols until at least the end of 2022.
Andrea Herring, Executive Director of Patient Safety and Experience, told The Catholic Weekly that the current wave has seen one in ten beds at St Vincent’s filled by acute COVID-19 patients.
St Vincent’s is a small 380-bed hospital. Forty acute COVID patients occupy an entire ward.
The explosion in COVID infections – nearly 165,000 recorded active cases and over 2300 hospitalisations at time of writing – has created a “domino effect” in the hospital.
“If you test positive while you’re in hospital, and you’ve been in a room with other patients, they’re then exposed. So we have to isolate them as well, too,” Ms Herring said.
St Vincent’s has to be particularly vigilant about COVID transmission because it runs the only heart and lung transplant unit in NSW.
“In a way it was easy when we were in lockdown, because everyone was at home, there weren’t a lot of people out there, and we really had locked down the hospital system.”
Transplant patients take medications which suppress their immune system to prevent their bodies rejecting the transplanted lung or heart, meaning they are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
“On top of that, if they actually get COVID, because of all the medications and things they’re on, they’re much more likely to get a lot sicker,” Ms Herring said.
COVID patients are being “cohorted” together in one ward, but patients’ families – now permitted to visit after a relaxation of visitors’ rules – and staff can still fall victim to community transmission.
“In a way it was easy when we were in lockdown, because everyone was at home, there weren’t a lot of people out there, and we really had locked down the hospital system,” Ms Herring said.
St Vincent’s staff are “shattered” and exhausted, and patient-facing staff will continue to wear P2/N95 masks and eye protection, along with other protective gear, until at least the end of 2022.
“I feel like we’re living in this parallel universe at the moment. There’s the outside world where people may or may not wear masks, carry on as if there’s no pandemic … we’re still in pandemic world,” Ms Herring said.
The pastoral care team have worked throughout the entire pandemic, and have also borne the stress of two and a half years of COVID-19.
Respected pastoral care manager Jenny Washington passed away in March after three decades of service, and other staff have departed for pastoral care roles in less stressful sectors.
St Vincent’s Catholic Chaplain Fr Martin Maunsell began at the hospital in February. He was previously Parish Priest of St Kevin’s, Eastwood.
He said the strict protective gear gave him a sense of “what it’s like to be an astronaut”.
“It’s difficult because you can’t get too close to people, particularly the patients, but your presence is so important,” Fr Maunsell said.
“I have such admiration for doctors and nurses, my goodness, how they do it.”
Continuing to give the sacraments and be seen on the wards is important to build morale, trust and was also a way of evangelising, despite the barriers.
“Ms Brunker said that the pastoral care team had become a key “bridge” between patients, healthcare professionals and distressed families, providing toiletries and other necessities as well as reassurance.”
The Pastoral Care team at St Vincent’s has had to adapt over the course of the pandemic to reach out to patients who were “absolutely askance that we were dressed like this”, pastoral care manager Maggie Brunker told The Catholic Weekly.
The key was to “really, really, really focus on the patient … your eyes have to tell the story – you can’t see somebody smile,” she said.
Ms Brunker said that the pastoral care team had become a key “bridge” between patients, healthcare professionals and distressed families, providing toiletries and other necessities as well as reassurance.
A ministry of tenderness, care and concern has also helped with anxiety and loneliness, dissolving barriers to patients receiving the healthcare they need.
St Vincent’s Mission Director Matthew Kearney said the pastoral care team drew heavily on the Ignatian tradition, a key influence in the founding of the Sisters of Charity.
During COVID the practice of a daily Examen was invaluable.
“We went through days where we pivoted on a dime. The capacity to be able to draw back and reflect, and see where the spirit was leading us at any point in time – it’s an important resource to build on,” Mr Kearney said.
Mr Kearney praised St Vincent’s for valuing the contributions of the mission and pastoral care team during the rapidly-changing COVID situation, saying it was an intense place to undertake ministry.