Louise’s partner and my partner are best buds. Before Louise and I came along, the two of them were joined at the hip– a true bromance! The first time I met Louise, it was instantly obvious that she is a genuinely lovely person- she’s incredibly generous, always smiling and always completely engaged in whatever conversation she finds herself in. As a doctor, Louise was working in both psychiatric and aged care throughout the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and I’m in complete awe of her resilience and sustained positivity throughout the experience. Before relocating home to Ireland, Louise and her partner spent a few nights with us and I took the opportunity to learn more about her journey in the medical profession so far. I feel humbled to be able to share her story.
“After letting go of my childhood dream of becoming an actor, I assumed I would end up in medicine. My Mum was a nurse and I had done a lot of science subjects at school so it made sense. But knowing the pressures of the industry, I second guessed myself and ended up studying business. It took me two years to realise it wasn’t for me and change to medicine. It immediately felt like the right path.
I studied in Galway on the west coast of Ireland for six years and then interned in Dublin. I was doing night shifts during my first internship and there was very little support – I just tried to keep myself above water. Looking back, it was a great way of learning on the job and building my resilience.
At the time, I lived with three other interns. We didn’t work together directly but we had studied together. Long university hours over six solid years means you end up going through a lot with the people you study with – they become a really important support network.
At home, we were able to unwind and debrief over dinner, which is probably the most therapeutic thing you can do!
After six years of uni and another year interning across two hospitals in Dublin, I moved to Australia. A lot of my peers did the same. Australia has one of the best healthcare systems in the world – there is the same level of research, technology and expertise as America, but with free healthcare and really good services.
For the first six months or so of 2020, I was working in psychiatry and dealing with a lot of schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia typically enjoy social isolation and as part of their treatment we ensure they’re being more socially active – engaging with a support worker and joining local community groups. This is just as important as medication.
But we were working in a pandemic and we weren’t able to see patients in person anymore. Psychiatry is a tough part of medicine at the best of times, but Covid made it even worse.
A lot of people who were already quite reclusive suddenly had an excuse not to engage with any of the groups we’d set up for them. Many patients became increasingly difficult to connect with on the phone. Patients couldn’t leave their ward for a cigarette or even a walk so it became an incredibly stressful time.
While I was never against the lockdowns, I could see how dire the situation could be for people’s mental health. If I couldn’t get through to patients on the phone, there was no way I could treat them properly. I was seeing a lot of people with quite severe mental illnesses who were getting worse. I also saw a lot of people who had no history of mental health problems presenting with a lot of anxiety or stress. With so many people losing their livelihoods, we saw a huge uptick of people in acute crisis. People didn’t know what to do so would just turn up to the emergency department highly anxious or stressed.
Then, during the second wave of Covid in Melbourne, I was working in an aged care hospital, where there was a massive outbreak. It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen. Elderly people in hospital were unable to see their families for six months and many of them passed away without being able to say goodbye. Their families were devastated and unable to have any closure.
It was such a confronting experience and gave me an entirely different perspective on the lockdowns. I was seeing the real tragedy unfold and it made me appreciate why we needed to lockdown and why it was so important to protect certain vulnerable members of our community. We owe so much to the older generation and they were dying without any dignity.
There’s no right answer in a global pandemic but witnessing these poor patients, who had been separated from their families for months on end, made me want to tell everyone to stay at home. It’s been frustrating seeing people continue to break the rules, but having also had the exposure to psychiatry, I do understand that some people have been at breaking point.
It’s not a normal situation for anyone.
There was so much confusion and uncertainty working in the hospital system throughout the initial outbreak. Policies would change daily, and we’d have frequent crisis meetings. One day we’d be told to wear a surgical mask and the next we were in head-to-toe PPE.
It was impossible to keep on top of everything and I felt pretty fearful the entire time. I would come out of the Covid ward and literally shower with alcohol. I lived in fear of bringing Covid home to my partner or spreading it to my friends. I never met up with anyone to go for a walk. Fortunately, I never got Covid and I feel so much more relaxed after getting the vaccine.
I’ve recently moved back to Ireland to pursue general practice training here. Ireland’s healthcare system can be a bit more challenging as it’s a bit behind Australia so it will be an adjustment. For the first two years I’ll do more hospital-based work including palliative care and children’s medicine and then hopefully start as a GP. It’s exciting but also daunting because in general practice people can come in and ask you about anything and the expectation is that you can help!
The more experience I get as a doctor, the more nervous I become. The more experienced you are, the more responsible you feel and at the end of the day we’re all human. We all make mistakes.
I’m in a really privileged position in this line of work. Patients tell me so much about their lives and that’s what I love most. I have some incredibly honest and open conversations and get to really connect with people. That’s why I’m so excited about general practice – I’ll end up being the go-to person and playing a positive role in the lives of so many people and families.”