COVID diaries: learning to be brave

By Dr Mehrab E Hossain

I am currently working as an Advanced Trainee in Infectious Diseases at Canberra Health Services- an Australian Capital Territory tertiary hospital. I have previously worked in a variety of hospitals in Victoria, Australia. It was in Victoria where I experienced the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic as a health professional.

When I had initially heard about the virus, I, like most, dismissed it as "just another infection that will soon fade into history." Little did I know it would become the catalyst that would close international borders, cause global economic and social crises, and transform healthcare. I was working in a remote hospital in Victoria when the devastating virus struck. As one of the few senior registrars in the hospital, I was assigned to supervise the COVID-19 ward, as well as assist in the unit's establishment. The number of irregular hours and the increase in workload was substantial when compared to the prior years I worked as a medical professional. It was physically difficult, mentally taxing, and one of the most difficult periods of my life. Although it was exhausting to be in-charge of the COVID-19 ward, it was also fulfilling. When I reflect on how I was able to assist the community, I remember I would leave the hospital after my shift feeling content, despite the long shifts and the meals I had to forgo.

There is nothing quite like the anguish you experience when you witness patients of all ages succumb to the COVID-19 illness, despite all your efforts. Not only have I lost patients, but I've also lost close relatives and friends. It had a profound effect on me psychologically. In order to insulate myself from the daily horrifying news of illness that I was receiving, I restricted my engagement on several social media platforms. I never anticipated witnessing “panic buy”, particularly in Australia. I contemplated leaving work and returning to my hometown to live with my parents and be amongst my loved ones. However, as my experience on the COVID unit grew and as new life-saving medications and vaccinations were developed, I began to feel more optimistic. Importantly, I had the constant support of my family. Despite not being in the same country with all of them, my parents, siblings, and husband grounded me in their love and care to remain sane during such chaotic times.

As a senior registrar, I spent considerable time instructing junior doctors, hospital employees and medical students on infection management and prevention. The teaching sessions included learning about the virus itself, the mechanism of its transmission, the significance of face masks, hand hygiene, social distancing and how to "don and doff" in high-risk environments (such as the Emergency Department, the Intensive Care Unit, and the COVID unit) as well as any updated protocols on management of patients.

I also served as a key participant in a number of COVID-19-related research activities and audits. These included understanding the virus and complications associated with the infection, the effect of prevention control on other respiratory viruses such as Influenza, RSV, etc., and the impact of this pandemic on patients on management of other comorbidities (e.g. clinic follow-ups, elective procedures, etc). Early last year, I published a paper on the duration of viral shedding in patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 disease in a regional setting. My findings concluded that viral shedding can be prolonged and variable, and that patients with mild disease may experience a recurrence of symptoms a week or more after their initial symptoms have resolved. The endeavor of the research, as with all research, is to help us better understand the virus and improve on how to manage it.

COVID-19 pushed the world into a grinding halt, however, there have been some positive effects. It's compelled us to pause, reflect, comprehend, and appreciate what it is to live, not merely survive. The experiences of the past two years have molded me into stronger and more fearless individual. I intend to continue growing with the lessons I have learnt during this pandemic, one of which is to be brave despite the uncertainty.