I was unsure what we nurses would experience at Melbourne’s public housing towers, which this week were put under total lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus and allow health authorities to complete thousands of tests.
Some media had portrayed them as being hostile places, rife with drugs and alcohol and, as I saw it, frightening to go to.
Residents had been shown pleading for help, food and basic supplies; there were reports of protests and a lot of anger.
Over the past few days, my colleagues and I attended the towers in Flemington and North Melbourne.
When I first arrived, there was a massive police presence and strict lockdown — my heart was in my mouth. I had never been exposed to public housing, violence or police incidents.
Media crews were set up along the roads and I was reminded of the news stories I had seen. We were guided inside to put on our PPE and began working our way along each floor.
We were assembled in teams of two nurses and two police officers, and each of us had a trolley containing everything we needed.
The trolley was part of our team, and we quickly became very protective of it.
At one stage we had to leave it downstairs while we took a drinks break in a different building. But when we got back, a box of gloves was gone.
From then on, for the next two days, we placed a piece of paper on it that read: “Fiona and Lisa’s trolley, please do not touch”.
I’m sure there was a psychological reason for this deep attachment we felt.
None of the residents I visited said ‘no’ to testing
We were given a list of the names of residents on each floor and worked our way through every apartment, continuing until they’d all been visited.
Testing was completely voluntary, yet not one resident said no. They were incredibly thankful, respectful and grateful for us being there.
After a while, we wrote our names on our gowns, as we were wearing full PPE and all they could see were our eyes.
The police stood back away from them and us, showing the same respect and kindness at every door we knocked on.
At every apartment, we asked: “Are you okay? Do you have enough food? Do you need any medication, is there anything we can do to help?”
There were some very simple requests: lactose-free milk, an onion and tomato, dishwashing detergent, sanitary pads and toothpaste.
We noticed bags and boxes of food which had been delivered in the foyers, under tents outside, outside doorways and inside rooms.
One man, with the biggest smile on his face, told us he had never had so much meat.
When each floor was completed, we went back downstairs to “doff” — remove our PPE in a particular way so as not contaminate ourselves or others.
Teams of paramedics were on hand to assist with every step. They possibly thought their job was insignificant, but it was just as important as ours.
One little break in our PPE and we could become the next source of community transmission.
With that weighing on my mind — not to mention the safety of my immediate family — I had never felt so anxious about doffing in all my decades of nursing.
The police were guided as well, and they, too, were grateful. I’m sure they were as anxious as we were.
Frightened faces and air kisses
We then cleaned and restocked our trolley, donned our PPE and set off again with a new list of more residents to test.
On the first day, as we were waiting to go inside, I looked up at the third-floor balconies to see lots of frightened faces watching us from behind the glass.
We sent them animated air kisses with both hands — they were delighted.
We continued to blow kisses backwards and forwards. It made my heart feel full, knowing they knew we really did care.
On the first day, 10 teams of us agreed to stay on beyond the end of our shift to try and get through all the testing.
We swabbed until 9:00pm — staying any later would have been unfair on the weary, anxious residents.
We were disappointed to learn there were still a couple of floors yet to be visited, but by then we’d done each building at the Flemington Road towers — an amazing effort by a team of dedicated professionals.
On Wednesday, we began at the North Melbourne towers, where we attended three different buildings. The lift in the first one was broken — we were meant to start on the 18th floor.
Lugging our trolleys, we climbed the stairs to the first floor, where we moved between apartments, testing. By the time we’d finished there, the lift was fixed.
Again, the residents were so grateful to be tested. They were worried for their health and that of their families. They proudly showed us their negative results, which were sent by text message to their phones. Some wanted to be tested again.
Most were worried about not being able to go to work and support their families or that they’d lose jobs entirely.
We encountered many parents whose partners had been locked out; some had nieces, nephews and cousins who’d been locked in.
These people had simple requests as well, and we were grateful to have a social worker with us who was able to arrange what was needed then and there.
I’m so proud to be a nurse
I left that day with a full heart thanks to all the “thank yous” and “I love yous” from the residents.
We were invited into many homes, and even offered tea and coffee. I went into a few rooms with elderly, frail people and young children (this was optional and only if we felt safe).
We felt like guests. I saw dozens of boxes of food and supplies.
I have so many wonderful memories of the past few days, all positive. I’d like the broader community to understand that sometimes media portrayals of what goes on are not necessarily true.
Despite suggestions otherwise, wheels are in motion to support these people — maybe things moved slowly at first, but from what I saw, lots of help is now on hand.
There are translators, social workers, support systems and many other resources.
I’m also very thankful and grateful to the team of incredible nurses who I had the honour of working alongside.
We have supported each other and together have made an incredible difference to many people’s lives, and served our community to the best of our ability.
I’m so proud to be a nurse.
One more thing: Please wash your hands, stay at home, and look after each other.
Lisa Peters is a registered nurse who works at a hospital in Melbourne.