Cheryl Martine was a part-time nurse, helping care for her daughter’s two grandchildren, when the coronavirus pandemic struck Australia.
Saddened by the loss of her husband, she had gone back to working as a registered nurse, a job she loved.
But she had more recently reduced her hours to one day per week and was planning to retire.
She now works four days a week and loves being a nurse more than ever, as she makes them laugh while testing them for coronavirus.
She is one of thousands across the country at the frontline of Australia’s COVID-19 response.
‘They’ve heard the horror stories’
By now, the rumours about the unpleasant nature of COVID-19 testing have spread far and wide.
Nurses at the EPIC testing centre in north Canberra say they can generally tell when someone is feeling anxious as they arrive, that they may have heard a few tales from those who came before.
“We try to allay that,” Ms Martine said.
“I say, ‘If you’ve heard the horror stories, don’t panic, we’re experienced, we know what we’re doing, we’re very quick.'”
Earlier on, the test for COVID-19 involved inserting a long swab — dubbed “the brain-scraper” — far into the nose, but now, it is shorter and less invasive.
Both the nose and throat are swabbed.
People react in different ways, with tears to the eyes, or they gag or sneeze.
“I say to people it’s like when you dive into a swimming pool and the water rushes up your nose,” Ms Martine said.
When it comes to children, they also have their tricks to ease any anxiety.
Ms Martine’s colleague Tracey Clarke said humour was one successful approach.
“You try to make a joke; you might say ‘I’m going to go as far into your nose as you do when you pull your boogers out,'” Ms Clarke said.
“You just try to relax them and explain exactly what you’re going to do, that it shouldn’t hurt.
“You take that time with each person.”
She said handling people’s emotions was all part of the job.
“When we’re in that role we’re the ones who are dealing with that anxiety,” she said.
But they said they believed they were mostly successful.
Tiring job comes with rewards
At the age of 66, Ms Martine is considered to be in a higher risk category when it comes to the effects of coronavirus.
But she said she felt safe at work and was not concerned for her health.
She said she intended to delay her retirement until she was no longer needed for testing.
The role is not without its physical challenges, and after a few months she had developed some discomfort from leaning into car windows for hours on end.
That was despite a system that allowed nurses to swap roles to reduce any aches or chafing from the different masks they are required to wear.
But physiotherapy and a new rolling stool had since resolved those issues, she said.
She and Ms Clarke said they felt rewarded by the fact that they were helping Canberrans.
“I have very elderly grandparents and I want to keep them safe in the community.”
She had not seen her grandparents since beginning work as a testing nurse but said it was worth it to ensure they stayed well.
“They’re not in a nursing home, they’re in their own home — I want to keep them there,” she said.
Ms Martine said she was grateful to Canberrans for being responsive to the testing requirements.
When an outbreak of coronavirus was confirmed at the Batemans Bay Soldiers Club, they were kept at work for nearly three extra hours due to a sudden spike in demand.
“I know we’re small compared to the rest of the country and I think the rest of the country is doing the best they can do, but I think that we live in a community that is very aware.”
‘Warm, soapy water is just as good’
Both nurses have procedures at home to ensure their families stay safe.
Ms Martine said everyone washed their hands as soon as they arrived home, including her grandchildren.
Her advice to others was to keep it simple and make sure they washed their hands regularly.
“And not to worry if you don’t have Pinoclean or Dettol wipes — warm, soapy water is just as good.”