Virus battleground Australia never sees

 

It's a key battleground in Australia's fight against coronavirus most of are lucky enough to never see for ourselves.

But the critical goings-on inside the COVID-19 ward at the Royal Melbourne Hospital has been revealed, including the mysterious "witching hour" doctor's can't quite explain.

A 60 Minutes film crew has been given exclusive access into the respiratory emergency department, or "RED Ward", where many Victorians sick with COVID-19 are treated, often successfully, but tragically not always.

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Sunday night's episode of 60 Minutes followed the ward's doctors and nurses as they dealt with an influx of patients around midday - known globally as COVID-19's "witching hour" - when patients inexplicably find symptoms suddenly worsen.

Emma West is one of the doctors in the RED ward who spends long and difficult days treating patients struck by the virus.

"It's an awful disease. There are no two ways about it," Dr Emma West told 60 Minutes.

"Every day we are seeing young people die.

"Today we've had lots of patients with coronavirus rolling in. It doesn't stop."

A 60 Minutes crew got exclusive access to the COVID-19 ward at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Picture: 60 Minutes
A 60 Minutes crew got exclusive access to the COVID-19 ward at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Picture: 60 Minutes

 

Dr Emma West has been treating COVID-19 patients in the ward. Picture: 60 Minutes
Dr Emma West has been treating COVID-19 patients in the ward. Picture: 60 Minutes

The patients in the RED ward are many and varied, from the elderly to the young, from heavily pregnant women to those battling both COVID-19 and drug addition.

One of the young COVID-19 patients admitted to the ward while 60 Minutes' cameras were rolling was 24-year-old Jennifer Duque. She was rushed to emergency after collapsing and was suffering from a fast heart rate and fast breathing rate, which were "both worrying signs", Dr West said.

Dr West checked Ms Duque's lungs for signs of blood clots, but no sooner had she confirmed there were none, the young patient's condition rapidly deteriorated and she needed to be taken to the intensive care unit - except there were no beds available in the ICU.

Such has been the toll of Victoria's 7600 active cases on the state's strained hospitals.

Ms Duque's condition thankfully stabilised but as the deadly pandemic has too often shown, it is not always a positive outcome.

Melbourne virus patient Jennifer Duque. Picture: 60 Minutes
Melbourne virus patient Jennifer Duque. Picture: 60 Minutes

 

A patient is brought in for treatment for COVID-19. Picture: 60 Minutes
A patient is brought in for treatment for COVID-19. Picture: 60 Minutes

 

The 60 Minutes crew was also there as another RED Ward doctor, Steve Muhi, reeled from the death of one of his patients with COVID-19.

The infectious diseases physician said they were seeing about one patient die each day.

"It's really disappointing. It's really quite challenging when people you care for pass away," Dr Muhi said.

"I think in particular it's because there are such limited treatment options for COVID-19 at this stage.

"We've got a lot of emerging evidence for novel therapies and we're trying to do research and experiments to try and give us more options, but at the end of the day, it's very hard and challenging to see people die.

"We're real people and I want people to see this is real," Dr Muhi addd. "This isn't something that's happening overseas only, this is happening right here in Melbourne, right now."

The 60 Minutes crew were also able to speak with RED ward patients about their experience battling the deadly virus.

Joanne Poyton spent 14 days in hospital after suffering "terrifying" symptoms she originally thought was a migraine.

"By day three ... I was non-functional. I couldn't even pick up the phone to call the ambulance," Ms Poyton said.

"It was terrifying. I remember looking (at the time) in the ambulance and it was a quarter to one on the Sunday afternoon, and the next thing I remember it's Friday night."

Now on her way to recovery, Ms Poyton had a message for Victoria's COVID deniers and others who refused to take safety precautions.

"These people who talk about their human rights being stripped away by having to wear a mask - well, what about my human rights?" she said.

 

60 Minutes went behind the scenes of the COVID-19 ward at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Picture: 60 Minutes
60 Minutes went behind the scenes of the COVID-19 ward at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Picture: 60 Minutes

 

It's Australia's major battleground in the fight against COVID-19. Picture: 60 Minutes
It's Australia's major battleground in the fight against COVID-19. Picture: 60 Minutes

 

"I lost 10 days of my life. I almost lost my life. I was close to having a heart attack. That's a bigger of a higher price than wearing a mask."

While face masks and other personal protective gear were an essential part of working in the RED ward, they did present a unique challenge when caring for patients under such frightening circumstances, Dr Ward explained.

"The hardest thing, I think, is not being able to communicate properly with your patients and the people you work with," she said.

"(The ability to smile) is completely gone. In the past I used to think you could smile with your eyes, but it just doesn't cut it.

"There's so much in terms of facial expression that communicates so much to someone, when you're trying to show you care about them, and it's just gone."

But it's a small price to pay to avoid becoming infected with the virus, the brutal reality of which 24-year-old registered nurse Dan Collins knows too well.

Mr Collins, who worked with coronavirus patients at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, took all the precautions but still became one of the 800 healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 more than a month ago.

Fit and healthy when he contracted the virus, Mr Collins battled intermittent fever and coughing, a sore throat, a racing heart beat and loss of taste and smell.

He spent his 24th birthday in hotel quarantine.

"I'm still pretty short of breath and I've still got this persistent cough at the moment which I can't really shake," he said.

"I'm young. It sucks."

 

Originally published as Virus battleground Australia never sees