Coronavirus, among its many quirks, had flipped the usual psychology of healthcare, he said.
Health practitioners traditionally worried about being a threat to patients, especially in the operating theatre, but that had changed with this disease. “Suddenly the patients were potentially a threat to us.”
Professor Story is quick to point out the threat is, of course, COVID-19, not the patient: “It’s almost like they’ve got an alien in them.”
Recent analysis by Amnesty International found that at least 7000 health workers have died around the world after contracting the disease. In Victoria, almost 3500 health workers have contracted the virus so far.
Professor Story said the photo essay was a lovely recognition of healthcare workers, who had faced uncertainty, anxiety and dramatic change during the pandemic, taking on major physical and emotional challenges and consequences, he said.
While most of us are focused on virus numbers reaching a point when restrictions can be lifted, he and his colleagues are looking beyond that, to how they will manage the backlog of surgery that has mounted up during shutdown. He is conscious of the many people with cancer or living in extreme pain, desperate for surgery that has been put on hold.
What Professor Story particularly likes about the newly-installed photo essay is its inclusion of the triad of patient care, education and research.
Commissioned by Metro Tunnel’s creative program, the photos line the hoardings in place in Parkville during construction of the major project.
Photographer Phoebe Powell took the 51 portraits of staff from organisations within the Parkville medical precinct, including the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the Doherty Institute, Melbourne University and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
The roles played by those in the pictures are varied, including cleaners and clinicians, nurses and doctors, researchers and midwives. The myriad of faces is moving – some wearing masks, others not – underlining the many critical contributions made in an effort to keep us safe.
Stephanie Russell is one of the unsung heroes recognised in the portraits – she is a cleaner in the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Emergency Department.
In March, the ED was divided into hot and cold zones– hot referring to areas dealing with COVID patients. Working in a hot zone, she has been wearing multiple layers of PPE, including a gown with an apron on top, an N95 mask, face shield and gloves.
The cleaning work is physically demanding even without the gear, but the layering adds to that. Ms Russell says it’s “awesome” to be recognised in the photo essay. “Sometimes we are forgotten in the hospital services, so it’s really nice to have that acknowledgement.”
Dr Julian Druce, head of the Virus Identification Laboratory at the Doherty Institute, is also featured. His lab was the first in the world to grow the virus outside China and since January his team has analysed over 180,000 swab tests. On their biggest day in April, they had 3500 samples through the door, about 35 times the normal work flow.
Dr Druce says it’s important to have people recognised for what they do, especially the clinical teams and laboratory teams behind the scenes who are sometimes overlooked.
“A lot of the attention goes to the coal face, which is absolutely because they see the dying patients and all the horrors and they are much more at risk and I don’t begrudge them any of that public support but the scientists and the people in the labs have done an amazing job in Victoria testing all the samples … to achieve the output of getting things under control.”
Many in the labs had been working 14 hours a day. “Only recently have we gone back to 10 hours a day, and even then it feels like we are scurrying out early.”
Dr Druce believes the government’s restrictions – and Melburnians’ response to them – have averted an absolute disaster. “Now we just have to put out some spot fires,” he says. “Heading into the warmer months social distancing becomes easier because people are more likely to be outside… [there’s] a lot of sky for a sneeze or a cough to blow up into, so that gives us six months of reasonably helpful weather and conditions to limit the spread.”
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald