‘I’ve never felt so desperate’: Aged care nurse leads wave of COVID lawsuits

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The 23 worst days of Yvette Callaghan’s life were spent inside her vintage campervan, nicknamed “Elvis”, in the driveway of her Mooroolbark home.

“I’ve never felt so desperate, sad, helpless,” says the 46-year-old nurse of the three weeks she spent in that Isuzu van recovering from coronavirus in July 2020.

Nurse Yvette Callaghan and “Elvis”, the campervan where she recovered from coronavirus in July 2020. She contracted the virus at Kirkbrae aged care home.Credit:Joe Armao

Ms Callaghan was among hundreds of health workers to contract the virus that year before a vaccine was available, and when little was known of the disease. Like an unlucky few, she still suffers its after-effects.

She is now at the forefront of a wave of lawsuits about to hit Australian employers; workers taking legal action for alleged negligence that led to their illness.

Ms Callaghan worked at Kilsyth’s Kirkbrae aged care home when coronavirus ripped through it during the pandemic’s bleak first winter, infecting 156 people. Twenty-one residents died and 54 staff were infected.

She worked just one shift in a ward known to have cases and says she knew, because of years of nursing, she’d been exposed to the virus.

Ms Callaghan inside “Elvis”.Credit:Joe Armao

“I rang my husband at lunchtime that day and said ‘Can you please do a shop and turn on the fridge in the van?’,” she recalls.

Elvis, so named because of the “quiff” that overhangs its driver’s windshield, has a bed, kitchen, toilet and shower. Before it became a grim COVID-recovery facility, the van took Callaghan and her family travelling to joyous music festivals.

But in July 2020, Callaghan finished her shift then went straight to the van. She didn’t even pause to go inside her house.

Over the next three weeks, she experienced crushing pain and feared she would die. It felt “like someone had punched a hole through my chest out through my back”.

Kirkbrae aged care home, run by the Presbyterian church, in Kilsyth.Credit:Joe Armao

She didn’t go outside, worried she would infect others. She didn’t call the ambulance, worried it would alarm her family. “Also, I didn’t want to expose the ambos.”

There was, she says, only one upside: “I watched the entire seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

Ms Callaghan says Kirkbrae, her workplace of five years, was ill prepared when the virus hit it. Rather than an orderly process separating coronavirus cases, she saw the well mixed with the sick.

The work was difficult, particularly with the centre short-staffed and personal protective equipment constantly donned and doffed in ways staff knew was far from ideal. “Each time we went in and out of a room, outside there was just a little bucket, overflowing with PPE. We were having to shove it all in,” she says.

Ms Callaghan says COVID-19 preparations at the home were inconsistent, with few clear directions to wear masks or protective gear.

She no longer works at Kirkbrae, which The Age contacted three times for this story. The home did not respond.

Ms Callaghan reports lasting impacts from her illness. Along with serious mental health issues, she tires easily. Before contracting coronavirus, she’d cover 24,000 steps on work days, completing a full shift then walking her dog for two hours. Now, walking around the block gives her pain and shortness of breath. She has a variety of other ailments.

Since March 2020, the government’s WorkSafe authority has accepted almost 1500 claims from people who contracted coronavirus, including more than 600 from people suffering virus-related mental and physical injuries.

Under Victorian law, employees compensated for workplace injuries can only apply for damages after at least 18 months, to ensure any permanent consequences of their injury can be assessed.

These damages claims will start flowing soon. Ms Callaghan’s is among the first.

She says she wants Kirkbrae held accountable for its lack of pandemic preparation. “All those residents, they didn’t need to die. Working in aged care you get used to death, but not like that. That was just obscene.”

Ms Callaghan’s lawyer Gennaro Fittipaldi from Fittipaldi Injury Lawyers says her injury was preventable. “Had management taken the health and safety of their staff and residents seriously, they would have understood this disease was deadly and extremely harmful and measures were required.” Staff were instead allowed to work among symptomatic residents without any system ensuring safety.

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Liberty Sanger is national head of the personal injuries’ law division at Maurice Blackburn. She expects more workers to come forward with concerns about permanent health symptoms if their employers didn’t take reasonable steps to ensure their safety.

Safety advice has to be heeded, she says, to minimise exposure to coronavirus and its consequences on mental health and wellbeing. “The longer the pandemic goes on, the more we are hearing about mental health issues arising from COVID-19 and workplace stress,” she says.

Peter Ewin is a principal at Barry Nilsson Lawyers’ insurance and health team. The firm acts mostly for insurance companies. Mr Ewin thinks the immense pressure sectors, including the food industry, are now under due to a worker shortage will inevitably cause more injuries.

“Out of that there will be claims both for physical health and from psychological pressure,” he says. “But the health area and aged care will also be a big one, because they are predominantly labour hire.”

Mr Ewin says he’s not yet seen serious COVID-19 injury applications to WorkSafe, but expects them to arrive soon. “What we’re starting to see is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

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