The ICU is dark, with no natural light from the new walls erected to lock the unit down against the pandemic.
All that can be heard is the rustling of thick, heavy gowns and the alarming of the machines working to keep patients oxygenated because their lungs are too stiff to function normally.
A never-ending trail of sweat runs down my arms, pooling in my sleeves, and another down my back.
The face shield over my glasses fogs continuously, making it difficult to see.
The urge to rip off the equipment is overwhelming as the 4 am panic sets in, but it is the only thing between you and COVID-19.
I never thought twice about caring for patients with COVID, even though I am living with HIV.
Ever since the pandemic began in 2020, I have been working on the frontline.
I have never thought of my own safety, just my duty as a nurse to care for patients presenting with COVID who were sick enough to require intensive care.
Here in Sydney, we were lucky in our first wave, but the second turned our one ICU into four, stretched us to capacity, and threw us into chaos.
This wave broke many of us due to the constant overtime required and the 12-hour shifts in full protective gear.
The fear and angst were palpable.
Though most were willing to gown up and care for these patients, there were also whispers of those refusing to go in, out of fear of contracting the virus themselves and winding up in ICU on a ventilator.
I was not yet born at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic.
After being diagnosed with HIV, I read widely about people’s experiences, including the memoirs of activists detailing the refusal of care for patients living with HIV and dying of AIDs-related illnesses.
I could see a correlation with the fear among other staff and their hesitancy to care for patients who were sick with COVID.
In many moments over the past months, the stigma has hit close to home, and I could see history repeating in the fear and stigma that had the potential to impact the care provided.
I know that if I were to contract COVID while working on the frontline, my immune system is intact, and I would be at no greater risk.
U=U has given me not only peace of mind in dating and my personal life, helping to reduce stigma, but also a sense of safety while working on the frontline in an ongoing pandemic.