‘I put my hand up straight away’: The SA nurses deployed to Victoria to help fight COVID-19

Nurse Kathie Spalding, far right, with the team at Lyell McEwin's COVID-19 testing clinic.

The callout came through at two o’clock in the afternoon on the last day of June. 

Victoria was in the grip of escalating COVID-19 outbreaks and needed help from interstate volunteers to boost its health workforce in the fight against the pandemic.

South Australian registered nurse Kathie Spalding, who earlier this year stepped up to the role of Nursing Unit Manager at Lyell McEwin Hospital’s COVID-19 testing clinic as the state tackled its own challenges, once again answered the call.

“I have a humanitarian background and I really wanted an opportunity to use it here in Australia,” Kathie recalls.

“I put my hand up straight away and rustled up a bit of interest from my clinic staff. Of the 16 nurses that came over [to Victoria] from South Australia [in July], nine were from our clinic.

“My family was the first consideration and once I got the green light it was an easy decision to make to go over. I’m from Victoria originally, so it was fairly close to home for me to come over and help out as much as I could.”

An Emergency Department nurse, Kathie “jumped at the chance” to shift into a leadership role at Lyell McEwin’s dedicated COVID-19 testing clinic, which launched in March.

The decision was sparked by a longstanding interest in infection control and prevention and newfound willingness to step out of her comfort zone and take on broader responsibilities in 2020, the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The opportunity to join Victoria’s COVID-19 frontline as part of a volunteer SA team of 29 nurses and paramedics, dubbed Team Alpha, added another dimension.

After rapidly confirming their interest, volunteers had to prime themselves to fly out the next morning.

Team Alpha returning to South Australia.

They were told they would be spending the next two weeks working out in the community across Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots and be based at the Alfred Hospital.

“We had to make sure we were fitted to an N95 mask, that we had no health risks and that we were able to fulfil the responsibilities attached to the role,” Kathie, who was appointed the Team Leader of travelling nurses,  says.

In Victoria, based out of the Fawkner Muster Site, SA nurses door knocked homes across Melbourne’s hotspot suburbs, including Craigieburn, Reservoir, Fawkner and Brunswick West, and carried out COVID-19 testing of consenting community members.

They also helped collect kits and supported residents to conduct their own self-swabs.

Kathie says she never felt afraid of contracting COVID-19 as nurses were always armed with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

“I didn’t go into any situation without first doing a risk assessment to identify whether or not we were putting ourselves in a situation that was going to present us with some problems.”

“Everything we did, we did with that background, and we were comfortable that we were taking appropriate measures to look after ourselves.”

Several days into the deployment, thousands of residents of Flemington’s public housing towers were forced into “hard lockdown” in a bid to contain the spread of the virus and resources, including Team Alpha, were diverted to the sites to conduct testing.

“Being so far out of our control, it was a little confronting. You were a little bit concerned about the rate [of cases] and I guess for us it was about the fact that it’s so densely populated there comparatively so we just tried to support as much as we could in any capacity that we could.

“Seeing the city go down into lockdown was a little bit eerie. The day before we walked through the city and it had been quite busy and the next day it was empty just because of the change in the criteria for everyone.”

In the aftermath, the team was sent back into the community for a few days, then moved on to support the Alfred’s COVID-19 clinic, before flying home.

The SA nurses deployed to Victoria were required to undertake 14-days of quarantine in a hotel when they returned.

Reflecting on the experience, Kathie believes it helped her grow personally and professionally.

“In my time and capacity there as the team leader, I worked with ACT nurses, I worked with Queensland nurses, and Victorian nurses,” she says.

“Seeing the pressure everyone was under and seeing them all come together and help each other and uplift each other was just amazing. It was really rewarding.

“It helped me build up the confidence to step outside my normal day-to-day and it’s given me more of an established empathy for what other healthcare networks are going through [during the pandemic].”

“I’m looking at things from a South Australian perspective, but seeing what other states are going through was a real eye-opening experience for me. Professionally, it was just about broadening my scope of practice and supporting and empowering the team to come together and get some outcomes.”

Back leading Lyell McEwin’s COVID-19 testing clinic, Kathie says supporting the community and preparing for what lies ahead remains the focus.

Nurse Kathie Spalding, third from left, with the team at Lyell McEwin’s COVID-19 testing clinic.

“Having never experienced something to this degree here in Adelaide, certainly probably in Australia, we had to adapt our emergency protocols very quickly and the COVID-19 clinic itself was set up overnight [in March], supported by our critical care division,” she says.

“Our numbers have seesawed and I think we have been very fortunate. Towards the beginning, with the travel and everything, there were quite a few positive cases coming through but we have been very fortunate to have lower numbers since. It certainly hasn’t affected us like it has some of the other states. We’re grateful for that and our hearts are going out to everyone else at the moment.”

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