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Aspen Medical, through its subsidiary Aspen Aged Healthcare, manages a federally-funded program to support the aged care industry in the event of staff losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tough times have a way of letting you know who your mates are.  For Clinical First Responder (CFR) Craig Hooper, the COVID-19 crisis has brought the bonus of new friends who look out for him.

Since joining Aspen Medical’s aged care surge workforce 12 months ago, Craig has seen more of his home state of Victoria than he ever has in his life.

A registered nurse and paramedic with 35 years’ experience, he’s used to odd yet fascinating deployments; one of his early jobs was setting up the ambulance service in East Timor just after independence.

But when COVID-19 tore through Melbourne in 2020, he and his fellow nurses faced something unknown and impossible to predict. Craig now leads Aspen Medical’s surge teams in aged care homes across Victoria, rapidly filling voids left by staff who have had to isolate and are sometimes ill with COVID themselves. Most deployments are for two weeks, which to his surprise has been just long enough to form a congenial bond.

“Every person on site has to look after their colleagues, even more than in other healthcare workplaces,” he says.

“It is a unique environment because of the complexity of the virus. Your survival can come down to PPE compliance: if your mask isn’t on right, you hope your colleague will tell you, because it makes a massive difference to safety.

“You build friendships because of that mutual reliance, along with not knowing what tomorrow will bring. If ever you think this job is sitting down and doing the same thing day after day, wow, you are absolutely wrong!

“Sometimes what we talked about yesterday has to change today – but not all changes are bad. Today we had a zone go from red to orange, which means we’re controlling the outbreak, and that’s very satisfying.”

What happens in this sort of short, sharp deployment?

“So, this week, we were informed at 9.30am that we needed to be in Echuca the next day,” Craig says on the phone from the historic Murray River town.

“We were on the road from Melbourne the next morning and arrived at 1.15pm. We’re just a surge team of two here, but a team can be as big as 15 people.

“I really love the collaboration between the Clinical First Responder – me – and the facility staff. We work on an outcome that makes things better for the residents and, of course, for the staff.

“Personally, I think one of the most important aspects is engagement work, and that’s before we begin infection prevention and control. It isn’t like I kick the door down and say ‘I’m here, you are saved!’. I am a guest in their facility, and I have to build up a rapport with the residents, for whom it is their home.

“Sometimes the staff member showing me around might be thinking ‘What is he going to criticise?’. My job is not to criticise but to uplift, to strengthen. You get that by suggesting, by recommending, by getting people in a circle and asking ‘how do you think this should work?’, and then doing it.

“My role can include everything from information management to logistics.

“Other times it is literally me out the back, dumping a pile of clinical waste in the bin. It was a public health hazard,’’ he explains, “so it couldn’t be left lying around when there was no assistant to pick it up. But that shows the breadth of my role as CFR. I like rolling my sleeves up and getting things done.”

As a graduate nurse in the 1980s Craig focused on emergency care and management.

His first role at Maroondah Hospital (in Melbourne’s east) served him well in East Timor, where he trained local paramedics.

“The ambulance service is still there 20 years later,” he says proudly.

COVID, too, has demanded he be innovative. Craig’s experiences of the past year, and that of his fellow CFRs, has helped form and streamline Aspen Medical’s world-class response to facilities in desperate need of relief and unable to find agency staff.

“My first deployment was in Sunbury, working with the head CFR on a very complex outbreak with a lot of positive cases,” he recalls.

“The care the residents received was really good.

“The important thing from my perspective is being able to provide an end-to-end service, from how to get the laundry done to how to ensure a good death –how to help a resident pass with dignity.

“In Sunbury we had a person in palliative care. When her family turned up we gowned them in PPE and took them in for 15 minutes only to say goodbye. She passed away about two hours after that. The ability to get family members in safely, for the resident and their loved ones to see each other, and afterward to ensure the staff had time with the resident, was important to managing the crisis.“

Craig is impressed by how well Aspen Medical looks after its surge staff.

“They make it very clear to us that we have 24/7 access to support services. There is a phone number you can call to speak to a counsellor,” he says.

“I find it really empowering. If you use this service, great. If you don’t, fine. It is not an embarrassing thing. Aspen Medical, over the years, has come to understand the uniqueness of this sort of placement.”

As the pandemic intensifies in its second year, opportunities abound for registered and enrolled nurses who’d like to care for elderly Australians and test themselves in situations that will use every bit of their smarts.

Aspen Medical, under contract to the Australian Government, is building a pool of professionals who can work at short notice. It does not compete with nursing agencies; it supports Commonwealth-funded facilities when commercial recruitment has been exhausted, and can also deploy staff to remote areas.  Aspen Medical arranges and pays for travel and accommodation associated with the deployment.

“This can be a wonderful way to see different places and build up more skills,” Craig says.

“If variety is what you’re after, and you want to be challenged, great role — especially if you’ve supported elderly residents in similar circumstances.”

And he got lucky, didn’t he? Echuca is beautiful in spring.

“Unfortunately I can’t explore it too much because of the current restrictions,” he says with a laugh.

“You can’t pop into the pub for a drink. That said, if you’re a person who exercises, this morning was brilliant in Echuca.”

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