Registered nurse Amanda Short is about to resign from a job she's loved for nearly 40 years, saying she can't do it anymore.
The 59-year-old said COVID-19 was the "straw that broke the camel's back", as the pandemic exacerbates systemic pressures on regional NSW health care that has been under the spotlight during a state parliamentary inquiry.
"You're tired, you're burnt out — older nurses like me have been there for 40 years," she said.
"I've picked up overtime for decades and decades, I've picked up when we've been short-staffed.
"You just know. One day you wake up and think, 'No, I can't do it anymore'."
COVID infections have soared across regional NSW as the health system beyond Greater Sydney continues to grapple with thousands of cases, increasing hospitalisations and high demand for tests.
Amanda Short prepares for another busy day on the wards.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)
Nurses have been by the bedsides of at least 200 COVID patients across regional hospitals in recent weeks.
Ms Short, who is a delegate with the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association on the state's Mid North Coast, said the emotional toll of treating those hospitalised was immense, but she tried to put on a brave face.
"You do the best you can, but how do you reassure someone who is puffing their life away and tell them it will be OK?" she said.
"We have COVID survivors telling their story. A lot of people have permanent lung damage and long COVID."
Ms Short said there had been constant calls to work double shifts, which staff had recently started to turn down due to exhaustion.
"When I do a double shift, I am just knackered for the rest of the week," she said.
"You have no lifestyle, you just want to sleep."
Ms Short says senior nurses are bringing forward plans to retire due to the pressures of the pandemic. (ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)'Relentless, endless demand'
On most days, Bellingen GP Trevor Cheney starts work at his clinic at 8am and finishes at 7pm. He also does shifts at the local hospital.
Dr Cheney said health workers in regional areas, especially in western NSW, had played many roles in the pandemic response in their local communities.
"The people seeing somebody in a medical practice are the same people seeing them in the hospital and the same people in the testing clinic," he said.
"That's a relentless, endless demand."
Amanda Short started nursing in her late teens.(Supplied: Amanda Short)
Despite the recent changes to COVID-19 testing by National Cabinet, waiting times at drive-through clinics are up to five hours with Mid North Coast health authorities citing the shortage of rapid antigen tests as a key factor.
Dr Cheney urged those in line to be considerate towards health staff.
"One thing I would say to people who are stuck waiting in queues at testing centres, all that stuff is added on to our normal work," he said.
"While someone might say, 'Five hours at a testing centre — that's an awful, horrible way to spend a day', the staff doing it have been spending 12 to 14 hours doing that day after day."
For Ms Short, the pressure has forced her to expedite her move into retirement, and she warned more senior staff would walk out the door as COVID pressures took their toll.
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The Nurses and Midwives Association's Liz McCall is a nurse in Byron Bay, NSW. (Supplied: Liz McCall)'It's crunch time'
The Nurses and Midwives Association in Byron Bay said staff shortages at the hospital were so serious the situation was becoming "almost untenable" with many nurses leaving due to burnout.
Association executive Liz McCall described the situation as "crunch time", and warned the loss of experienced nurses would have serious ongoing effects for the health sector.
"When they do go, the new graduates that are coming through and the junior staff [are] not going to have those mentors around," she said.
"The loss to the profession and the loss to our communities is immeasurable, absolutely immeasurable."
In a statement, the Northern NSW Local Health District said the workforce had been increased and upskilled to provide additional capacity if needed.
Ms Short is looking forward to spending more time at her Bellingen home with her dog Carla.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)'Everyone pulls together'
During the long, harder days, Ms Short said one thing she valued was the camaraderie of her nursing team over the decades, especially during the pandemic.
"You usually find if you are really drowning, everyone pulls together," she said.
She said her focus was to lend a hand to junior staff to help them through.
"They are our new tomorrow and if they drown, they'll just get disillusioned with the system and go," she said.
"The whole ward just comes together, and you do what you can and when the next shift comes on you just muck in and that's the nice thing about nursing … you do have teams and support."
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