From saving sight to fighting COVID-19

Lions Eye Donation Service staffer, PhD candidate and registered nurse Heather Machin has played a critical role in Victoria’s fight against COVID-19.


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In her regular job, Heather Machin plays an integral role in the sight saving work of Victoria’s Lions Eye Donation Service (LEDS).

As a project officer at LEDS, Ms Machin is part of a small team that facilitates thousands of corneal transplants every year, providing an important link between hospitals, patients and the families of donors.

The service, a partnership between CERA, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the Lions Clubs of Victoria and Southern New South Wales and the University of Melbourne, continued to operate throughout the pandemic.

But at the height of Victoria’s crisis, Ms Machin, a trained registered nurse decided to join the effort to tackle COVID-19.

She joined a pilot telehealth program run by community health provider cohealth and spent two months coordinating a team of nurses supporting isolated and vulnerable members of the community who were COVID positive.

The experience gave her an insight into the complexity of managing such a big public health challenge and people’s personal situations in times of crisis.

It also highlighted the new skills needed to work with clients in a telehealth environment.

“If you are treating someone in person, so much of it is about non-verbal communication, you might notice a patient is holding their arm, or their expression – but if you are talking to over the phone you have to listen very carefully for a  tone of voice or sigh or a pause that indicates they need more help,’’ she says.

Home support

Ms Machin and her telehealth team contacted members of the community who had received a positive COVID-19 test to assess any social risk factors that may affect their ability to self-isolate.

It was a diverse group of people, many with complex needs – including international students, health and other essential workers, people with mental illness and those experiencing family violence.

It was an eye-opening experience about the turmoil a positive COVID-19 result could place on someone’s life – particularly if they were already doing it tough.

“Like many people I used to watch the early press conferences about people who left their homes despite testing positive and had the perception that it was not difficult for someone who was COVID-positive just to stay at home,’’ she says.

“But I soon learned that staying at home for two weeks is not easy if you have no food, if you are worried you will lose your job if you don’t go in, or you are in an abusive family and it is just not safe to be there.’’

The nurses advised positive clients on the support they could receive to isolate safely, linking them with practical help and support services as well as checking on their health and wellbeing.

This could range from linking people with alternative, safe accommodation – or referring them for further medical help or social and financial support.

Vulnerable groups

One particular group that struck a chord for Ms Machin – who is currently completing her PhD at CERA – were international students.

“They have found themselves in no-man’s land with little support, and many are very lonely and isolated,’’ she says.

“They don’t have an extended network of family to draw on or the health literacy to navigate the Australian medical system.

“Many have lost their jobs, are not eligible for Medicare and often don’t want to use their health insurance because they don’t want their parents to know they have tested positive because they will be worried.

“And like many students they love living in share houses because it’s fun – but that comes to an abrupt end when one person tests positive and it rips through the household.’’

Rewarding experience

As Victoria’s COVID numbers dropped dramatically, so did the telehealth services workload and Ms Machin returned to her role at the eye bank.

But in the future when she looks back on 2020, it is an experience that will stay with her.

“It was a really rewarding and invigorating experience to be able to help,’’ she says. “And I feel very satisfied that I was able to contribute to fighting the pandemic on a personal level.

“But I could not have done this without the support of the LEDS and CERA team. It was never treated like a hassle if colleagues had to pick up extra work to cover for my absence.

“It was very much the attitude that we are part of a broader community and should do everything we can to help.’’

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