For many junior doctors, the start of this year was the realisation of a dream and the product of years of scrupulous study; but it quickly became much more than that – it became the ultimate baptism of fire. COVID-19's arrival turned the lives of interns and residents upside down.
One of those affected was Dr Milonee Shah, a second-year junior medical officer wanting to pursue a career in critical care. Dr Shah's first placement for the year was in emergency department (ED), followed by the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Royal North Shore Hospital.
'For me, it was scary, but at the same time it was perfect,' Dr Shah said.
'As someone who wants to pursue a career in critical care medicine and has a passion for adrenaline-filled situations like retrievals, working in ED and ICU for the nine months of this year, has been extremely valuable.
'If I can handle the stress and dynamic nature of a pandemic, then I'm definitely built for this career.'
While the experience would prove to be invaluable, it would also take its toll on Dr Shah and many of her colleagues.
'None of us have ever experienced a pandemic, let alone having to face the reality of continuing to work through one whilst also maintaining a brave face as frontliners for the community,' Dr Shah said.
'Alongside getting used to the lifestyle of a junior doctor, which often has its own associated stress and fatigue, having the added cognitive element of constantly thinking about COVID-19 - whether my patient might need to be screened, how to keep myself, my colleagues and my dear ones safe - all of that has had a subconscious impact and has made it a more challenging journey as a junior doctor.
'It was a stressful time from a mental health point of view, dealing with our own personal lives and safety whilst also managing the high levels of anxiety and concern in the community.'
Dr Shah said the camaraderie among staff was one of the most essential tools in the fight against the virus, as well as support from the junior medical staff unit and the Residential Medical Officers' Association.
'The doctors, nurses, administrative and support staff - everyone was crucial to supporting everyone else.
'It was important for all the staff to be adaptable, flexible and maintain a sense of disconnect from the stress of the whole situation in order to keep servicing our community.
'We sought comfort in each other and also benefited from some wonderful gestures of kindness from the community.'
While Dr Shah can't wait to get back to in-person dance classes and travelling with her partner, she said the pandemic has taught her some valuable lessons about teamwork and wellbeing so early in her career – but also that it's important to be happy doing what you do.
'As clichéd and philosophical as it sounds, you never know what's coming around the corner, so it's important to be happy where you are, whatever you're doing,' she said.
'All of the healthcare staff working through the pandemic and risking their own lives, would never have been able to do it if they didn't love their job.'
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