Victorian doctor escorted from NSW hospital in ‘spiral of covid panic’

4 minute read

It’s the latest example of healthcare workers being vilified in the pandemic, she says.

Dr Helen Schultz, a consultant psychiatrist, never thought the last day of a NSW locum would end with her being kicked out of a hospital by a nursing unit manager.

Her crime? Being a Victorian.

Victoria went into circuit-breaker restrictions on Thursday night including a seven-day lockdown amid an outbreak now numbering 30 people.

“I turned up for work this morning on my last day of a two week locum at the Mater Mental Health Centre hospital in Newcastle where the lady at the front desk asked me if I’d been in Victoria in the last 14 days,” Dr Schultz told TMR.

She answered yes, explaining that she had started working at the hospital 12 days ago, after flying in from Melbourne on 16 May – eight days before the Victorian community cases began to be investigated.

“My response seemed to start a whole spiral of panic and chaos in the hospital,” Dr Schultz said.

“After being in the ward, I was greeted by a nursing unit manager – whose name I didn’t even know – who initially told me that I needed a mask, and from there it escalated.

“He asked me to go through the list of recent Victorian exposure sites and I said ‘I promise I have not been to any of the exposure sites’, but it was like being guilty until proven innocent.

“The last thing I want to do is bring covid into a hospital.

“He just started to make things up as he went along and said I needed to leave ‘right now’.”

Dr Schultz, who was shocked that this exchange was occurring in front of other staff members, told the NUM that it was her last day and that she needed time to complete an appropriate clinical handover.

“He said ‘You can’t. Get your bags’ and then escorted me out.”

Dr Schultz said she was mortified by the encounter and had been diligently following all public health procedures.

“I’d been walking around [the hospital] in the days prior without a mask on and following all the procedures, I don’t have any symptoms, and I got a vaccine when I could,” she said.

Dr Schultz, who decided to fly back to Melbourne today, said she had since been contacted by staff members who apologised for the way she was treated.

“I was working in the mental health unit, which is chronically short-staffed, and really unable to attract permanent doctors, like many regional hospitals,” she said.

But after becoming the target of the misplaced covid fear, she is adamant that she will not be returning to locum for the Hunter New England Local Health District.

“I’m really offended and I now understand what people in hotel quarantine might feel like – I was treated like an absolute pariah,” Dr Schultz said.  

Dr Schultz, who is a strong advocate for doctors’ mental health and wellbeing, said her experience was just another example of healthcare workers being vilified for spreading covid.

“I just think that it’s time to just show some compassion towards each other and recognise that we’re all sick of this pandemic but we have to stay in there for the long haul and leaders need to lead by example,” she said.

“And we need to remember to treat people with courtesy and respect – even people who are covid positive.”

In the meantime, Dr Schultz is looking forward to getting home to her son in Melbourne who will be facing his second home-schooling experience in less than a year.

The icing on the cake: amid lockdown she has to somehow rescue her cat Daphne from the pound, after someone saw the fully microchipped and registered animal in her own garden and decided she was lost.

Update 31 May:

Dr Brendan Flynn, executive director of the Hunter New England Mental Health Services said he wanted to apologise to Dr Schultz for the incident on Friday.  

“I offer my sincere apologies to Dr Schultz for the embarrassment and distress we caused her today,” he told TMR.

“A senior executive from our service phoned Dr Schultz earlier today to apologise for her experience and thank her for her work with our service over the past 10 days.

“With the evolving COVID-19 situation in Victoria, we all aim to ensure our patients, staff and the community stay safe and protected from the virus.”

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