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Caregiver selflessly flies one COVID coop to help another

29 November 2021 Blog
Meet our caregivers
Since the pandemic began, nurses have been thrown on the frontlines, exposing themselves to the insidious effects of COVID-19, all the while having to adapt to operational changes at a moment’s notice as part of their regular job expectations.

Long shifts, PPE gear, caring for dying patients and their families all became the new norm for many Australian nurses, but for one St John of God Health Care nurse, these limitations did not impose enough of a challenge so she decided to throw two weeks’ hotel quarantine and a stint volunteering at Fiji’s biggest hospital into the mix.

Answering the call

Following a request by the Fijian Government, St John of God Berwick Hospital Infection Prevention Control Nurse Priscilla Singh joined four other Australian medical professionals to work alongside the poverty-stricken country’s Ministry of Health and Medical Services to respond to an urgent call for COVID-19 surge support in September this year. 

Leaving behind her husband and two young children aged 10 and 11, Priscilla used her own annual leave to assist with Fiji’s COVID recovery by educating caregivers on important methods of Infection Prevention Control (IPC) and offering clinical care support to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital’s 600-bed facility. 

“It was certainly a different scene,” says Priscilla, “Especially when you consider how under-resourced the country can be. But in saying that — they certainly did well with what little they had.”

SJOG Values – Compassion- Priscilla Fiji_1

The experience

Priscilla spent much of her time making recommendations on how to go forward with the infection prevention control knowledge needed to safely open up. 

“There were lots of donning and doffing training sessions, teaching the caregivers about improved IPC measures and just general clinical and collegial support,” explains Priscilla.

“Many of the Fijian caregivers lost frontline colleagues due to death or quarantine requirements during the outbreak, with 30 per cent of the frontline workers contracting COVID.” 

With no PPE equipment to begin with, it’s not surprising caregivers were an easy target for this disease. 

“There wasn’t even medical tape to hold cannulas in place,” she says. “It’s amazing to see how they’ve recovered. There wasn’t even oxygen available within the hospital.” 

Priscilla notes that small wins like now having a tank onsite and receiving 50 alcohol hand sanitiser holders to attach at entrance points around the hospital were highlights of her deployment (pictured).

Despite the fact that Priscilla requested 500 holders, she recognised that the same level of help and resources that we are accustomed to in Australia, just don’t exist over there. SJOG Values –Compassion- Priscilla Fiji 2

“It was an eye-opening experience, especially when you compare it to what we have here,” she claims.

The prolonged COVID outbreak created high levels of fatigue among health care workers, with Priscilla acknowledging that although everyone had to pitch in and help, the pandemic had taken a toll on people’s mental health.

“When the number of COVID cases amongst caregivers started to impact the functional running of the hospital, everyone had to step up — the Director of Nursing had to take over the cooking of the food while the whole kitchen staff were in isolation, even the asymptomatic COVID-positive staff were asked to come back to care for COVID-positive patients.” 

Back to where it all began

Priscilla, who is Fijian-born, saw this urgent need for help as an opportunity to give back to the country she emigrated from as a one-year-old. 

“I still have family in Fiji. My grandmother still lives there,” shares Priscilla, adding that getting to visit with her was an added bonus of the trip.

Not only was she born in Fiji, Priscilla was ironically delivered at the same Suva hospital she would return to 38 years later as a medical health professional to help the hospital recover from the pandemic. 

“I was born at Colonial War Memorial Hospital,” she explains. “It was what inspired me to want to go back and help out — well that, and getting to see my grandma was a big plus point,” Priscilla admits.

Pictured is Priscilla holding a baby delivered at Colonial War Memorial Hospital, the same hospital she, herself was born at 38 years ago.

SJOG Values – 1 Compassion- Priscilla_Fiji 3

The support network who made it possible

Praising the support of her husband, parents, co-workers and St John of God Berwick Hospital Director of Nursing Allison Merrigan, Priscilla believes it would never have been possible to give the people of Fiji a much-needed hand without them. 

“With the incredible assistance of my husband Kawal, and amazing parents, I was able to go. It was also a combined effort from our Infection Prevention Control Coordinator, Susan Marquez and Director of Nursing, Allison,” offers Priscilla. 

“I only gave them two weeks’ notice before I had to fly out and yet both fully supported me.”

Priscilla also notes that, ironically, while COVID devastated many people and businesses, the fact that Victoria was in lockdown actually helped her quest. 

“My family’s retail store was only open a few hours a day for click and collect, so Kawal was able to stay home with our children. They did survive, but just barely,” she jokes. “I still got calls asking me if I knew where the kids’ school pants were.” 

Exhibiting our values

It’s a selfless act to not only leave your husband and children and give up your annual leave, but to put yourself in the line of fire and provide compassionate care for people less fortunate than yourself is a value St John of God Health Care upholds and encourages its caregivers to nurture. 

“We are so incredibly proud of Priscilla and her efforts to improve health care in Fiji,” remarks Allison. 

“What a fantastic, all-encompassing display of what it means to exhibit St John of God Health Care’s five values of Excellence, Respect, Compassion, Justice and Hospitality.” 

Allison also recognises that Priscilla’s return journey to Australia brought about further challenges for Priscilla to endure in her pursuit to help others. 

“The act of volunteering to go to Fiji was pretty remarkable in, and of itself, but when you couple that with the fact that Priscilla also had to suffer through two weeks of government-mandated hotel quarantine… well, you start to understand just how extraordinary Priscilla’s desire to help others truly was.”

In total, Priscilla put aside five weeks to be able to embark upon her journey to help her native country battle through the aftereffects of this pandemic. She spent two weeks in Fiji, two weeks in hotel quarantine and then deservedly took a week off to recover and spend time with her family when she returned to Melbourne.

However, rather than using the time in hotel quarantine to relax and focus on herself after a hectic and demanding two weeks in Fiji, Priscilla took the first of her 14-day quarantine stint (which happened to be a weekend) off, only to begin an interim role of contact tracing for St John of God Health Care and Monash Health for the following two weeks.

While surviving hotel quarantine is a story within itself, Priscilla saw it as a necessary evil to do greater good in this world. 

"I did feel a bit like a prisoner and didn’t particularly like that aspect of hotel quarantine,” admits Priscilla, who not only spent the quarantine period working, she also used it to work on her Masters in Infection Prevention and Control through Griffiths University.

Despite the hardship of isolation, Priscilla reflects positively on her time in quarantine. 

”It was a lovely feeling to finally get out of ‘prison’ and come home to my family and friends,” she says, before cheekily adding, “I do, however, miss having meals delivered to me three times a day and a tiny little room to clean instead of a house.” 

Values in Action series:

At St John of God Health Care we uphold the values of Compassion, Respect, Justice, Hospitality and Excellence. Priscilla's story of our values in action is the first of a five-part series.

Priscilla Singh St John of God Berwick Hospital
Priscilla Singh - Clinical Nurse - Infection, Prevention & Control
Guest Author
Priscilla Singh is a Clinical Nurse - Infection, Prevention & Control at St John of God Berwick Hospital.
Priscilla Singh St John of God Berwick Hospital
Priscilla Singh Clinical Nurse - Infection, Prevention & Control
Guest Author