The bonds between staff and patients at the Jim Carney Cancer Treatment Centre have grown stronger after both groups made immense sacrifices to keep the unit virus free throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the specialised nature of the work at the Centre nursing staff and health care assistants have been working at full capacity without outside support throughout the pandemic to ensure chemotherapy treatment continues. With doctors working from home, the nurses' administrative responsibilities have increased to ensure patients are appropriately processed.
The staff split into two teams, to reduce the chance of exposure in the Unit and patients have had to be given results and treatment plans over the phone, which has made building trust sometimes challenging.
To keep their immune-compromised patients safe, the team also had to make adjustments to their bubbles at home, often removing themselves from their families during Lockdown.
Clinical nurse educator Courtney Morgan sent her children to live with their other mother for the first two weeks of Level 4, which was the longest time she had ever been apart from them. They all returned home for the last two weeks of Lockdown, and since then, she has been juggling increased work hours, life as a single mum, studying, and a house move. Courtney has been able to cope knowing her team understand what she is going through and are there to talk through or have a cry with if she needs.
Tracy Clarke who is a registered nurse at the Centre decided to send her children north to Opononi with her mum for the entire Lockdown to keep them safe and give her the capacity to work full time to support her team. Tracy said the distance had been particularly hard on her 20-year-old son, who has disabilities, so she called him every day to tell him how proud she was of him taking care of his sister and nana and handling it all so well.
Registered nurse Jackie Boucher and her husband, who is also a nurse, sent their three children away for the five-week Lockdown. She said her team had supported her the entire time and even threw her a shared afternoon tea on her birthday which fell in April to make up for not having her children around.
Jackie said the whole experience had been a massive learning curve, with more paperwork than usual to contend with and an increased need to educate and support patients while they were in the Unit to cover their missing support person.
She noted that cancer patients tend to keep themselves away from sick people, so are already social distancing to an extent thankfully because COVID-19 would have been detrimental to them.
"We have been lucky that the community stepped up and played their part; otherwise, we would have been in a completely different boat."
Not being able to hug has been one of the hardest things healthcare assistant Glenys Epiha has had to deal with during the pandemic.
"I never thought we would endure a time that human touch could kill someone.
"It truly pained me to be unable to reach out physically to my work team at times of joy or sadness, or our new patients who were so very anxious, and scared, and couldn't have their support person or family member with them."
Glenys also struggled with the fact that her nine-year-old son worried about her wellbeing after one evening when he had asked her whether she would die if she kept working and got sick at work. She had to remind him that she was a real superhero and took a photo of herself in her PPE or superhero outfit, to ease his mind.
Glenys said that they are all a big family at Jim Carney Cancer Treatment Centre.
"When we were at our most vulnerable, being separated from our families, our greatest strength and weakness came to pass.
"Together, we paddled for each other to find the strength. I am so proud this waka of ours has kept a good course."
Whangarei woman Alison Dobbs was one of the many new patients to begin her chemotherapy treatment during Alert Level 4, which meant having to undergo her first two treatments without her husband or family members by her side.
Alison said that it was all a bit overwhelming at first, but the care she received from the nursing staff and health care assistants had been marvellous, and she couldn't speak highly enough about them.
"I'm yet to meet my oncologist, so everything I've learnt and any questions I've had during my treatment has been answered by the nurses and healthcare assistants. They have been amazing."
To help reduce anxiety and stress, the team have made a concerted effort to add something to their daily routine – from meditation to parking 40 minutes away so they can get some exercise in and de-stress after their shifts. They have also been ordering lunches from café's to do their part to support local businesses also struggling through Lockdown.
Courtney said although it has been stressful, she feels there have been good things to come out of from the pandemic.
"We are fortunate to live in New Zealand in all kinds of ways - we have an amazing leader who I think has done the right thing, closing our borders and putting us into Lockdown.
"The Aroha for our people has shown through in these times - we get on with things for each other.
"Plus, my kids enjoy washing their hands now.
Image: Glenys Epiha (front left) and Tracy Clarke (front right) with their Jim Carney Cancer Treatment Centre colleagues.