Health Heroes: Westmead specialists fighting COVID-19 since the beginning

Dr Matthew O’Sullivan was appointed the medical team leader of an AUSMAT deployment to Christmas Island. He was responsible for all the medical aspects of a cooperative team made up of 25 doctors, nurses, paramedics and logisticians, supported by federal police, defence force and border force personnel.

Before COVID-19 affected all our lives, two Westmead Hospital clinicians dropped everything and answered the call to be part of Australia’s initial response.

Dr Matthew O’Sullivan, senior staff specialist in infectious diseases and microbiology, and Dr Satish Mitter, emergency physician, were part of the Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AUSMAT) responding to the relatively-unknown coronavirus threat in January.

Dr O’Sullivan was treating four patients with COVID-19 at Westmead Hospital before he was called upon to manage 278 Australians in quarantine on Christmas Island.

“This was my first deployment and an opportunity to put into practice what I’d worked on for the past few years. I was given 12 hours’ notice to jump on a plane and go to Darwin,” he said.

In Darwin the team took stock of all the medical equipment that would be loaded with them on a military plane to Christmas Island, where they then had two days to prepare for the Australian evacuees arriving from the Chinese province of Wuhan for two weeks in quarantine.

“We did a rapid assessment of every evacuee as they arrived and identified those who needed further testing,” Dr O’Sullivan said.

“We actually set up a laboratory on the island, which was a major achievement and supported the whole operation. That meant we could do the primary testing there and have results within hours, rather than a three-day wait if we needed to send them to the mainland.

“We also did check-ups every day, but a lot of our work became keeping people occupied and entertained for the two weeks of isolation.”

After learning that one of the evacuees was a renowned musician who was missing a Chinese New Year concert in Sydney, the team decided to host an outdoor concert with performances by evacuees and medical staff.

Local school students also wrote letters and painted pictures for children in the detention centre.

“We were worried for the evacuees and relieved when there were no cases. It was a huge learning experience and really valuable to be able to manage quarantine and testing in the field,” Dr O’Sullivan said.

“The main highlight for me was the gratitude of the evacuees. I felt bad that we were keeping them in isolation so far from home, but they were incredibly grateful and compliant with all our requests.”

Dr Satish Mitter was also given a few hours’ notice, though his deployment was to Japan to aid the evacuation of more than 200 Australians stranded on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where many passengers were already confirmed COVID-19 positive.

The team had one day in Japan to plan the evacuation with the Australian embassy and border security force, factoring in protective measures to prevent further spread of the disease.

“We managed everything from the cruise ship to the airport to Australia, besides the flight safety briefing and in-flight meals,” Dr Mitter said.

“Once in Darwin we were essentially running a hotel, except covered head-to-toe in PPE [personal protective equipment] in 30-plus degree heat and 100% humidity.”

The team performed daily health checks and tests on anyone with symptoms, and those who tested positive was transferred to hospital in their home state.

Sadly the first Australian casualty of COVID-19 was among those diagnosed in Darwin.

“It was an experience that’s hard to describe. It was a very different challenge to our normal work, mentally and emotionally, stepping out of well-run machines and into the unknown,” Dr Mitter said.

“The passengers were frustrated and bored but were understanding and grateful for the care provided to them by the AUSMAT.”

For the latest information and advice about COVID-19, please refer to the NSW Health website.

If you develop any flu-like symptoms, please stay home and call your GP or healthdirect on 1800 022 222.

In an emergency please call triple-zero (000) immediately.