The Chronicles of Cairns…

As a regular traveller for Vision Australia Thursday night in early June 2022 before I travel to Cairns was like any other night. I pack. I review my itinerary. I check in with my wife to see that she has everything she needswhilst I’m away for two nights. Then as always, the last thing I do before I go to bed is a Covid RAT.

As with the 30 or 40 other times I’ve travelled the test was negative. I’ve often joked with Susie, one of my colleagues who travels pretty frequently, that maybe we are immune to Covid. We are of course also both triple vaccinated. I throw the test away and go to bed ready for the 5.00am start the following morning like I’ve done dozens of times before.

Friday morning went like any other. My loyal taxi driver, Moses, he’s been picking me up for about 16 years now in Canberra, arrived on time, dropsme to the airport without Incident like he’d done 1000 times before. I catch my plane to Sydney, get my connecting flight to Cairns. Everything seems normal. Nothing was out of place. The flights were even on time!

I was excited to be travelling to Cairns. I was looking forward to meeting the team for the first time and really getting to experience the great service that they deliver to our clients in far north Queensland.  

Vanessa, one of the Vision Store team from Townsville is in town and collects me at the airport and we take the 10 minute journey into theBoland Centre where we had a pop-up store set up.

We arrive and I meet the team. The pop-up shop looks fantastic, and all of our staff are actively engaged working with clients. I take some photos and chat to the team about how I can support them over the next couple of days.

I notice a slight tickle in my throat. I know that I tested negative to Covid last night: it’s probably the four hour flight or the air conditioning or thechange in weather: -4 degrees in Canberra and 28 degrees in Cairns. Soperhaps that was it. I’ve been working from home all week so there was no way that I had Covid. 

At around 4.00pm I head off to the hotel to get ready for dinner with the rest of the team. Around 6.00pm we meet the rest of the team and enjoy a beautiful dinner on the waterfront. Again, uneventful like any other dinner. I enjoyed some beautiful fresh barramundi, members of the team had steak or pasta or salad and overall it was a great night. We left pretty early, 8.00pm: we had a big day planned for Saturday with the pop-up shop continuing and Career Sampler. I was feeling fine, the tickle in my throat was forgotten as we said our goodbyes for the evening.

The team drop me back at my hotel at about 8:10pm. I check some emails, reviewed my notes for Career Sampler, had a shower and did some ironing and had a cup of tea and went to bed.

Then my world came crashing down.

I woke at about 2.00am drenched in sweat and felt as if someone had filled my mouth with razorblades. My head was throbbing, my limbs were aching and I can barely lift my head off the pillow. Was it food poisoning? Was it a tropical disease of some type? Was it the flu? Or was it Covid?

I toss and turn in agony for the next few hours. I try and drink some water. I make another cup of tea. As night starts to turn to day I start to think about what I should do. Do I need an ambulance? Should I locate a doctor? Should I go to hospital?

I ring my wife in a fairly distressed state. I can’t think clearly, and I am aching all over. She locates a chemist nearby and Google says it opens at 7am. It’s only a six-minute walk from the hotel so I throw on some clothes and head off to see if I can get a rapid antigen test. I thought that if I could eliminate Covid I could then see a doctor or chat to a pharmacist to see what was actually wrong with me. I wasn’t convinced I had Covid. My symptoms have come on quickly, really quickly, which isn’t typical of Covid and where did I get it from. I’ve been home all week.

When I get to the chemist it is closed. I’m exhausted, I’m hot, I’m sweating all over and feel as if I will pass out soon. I call my wife and we locate another chemist this one is a 16 minute walk. In my mind 16 minutes sounds like 16 kilometres. I can’t risk a cab or Uber as I don’t want to infect anyone if I have Covid. So, I start trudging up to the next chemist. After what seems like an eternity I arrive at the chemist. It’s open. I ring the chemist and advise them of my predicament. I don’t want to come in and risk infection and could they assist me and bring out a rapid antigen test and some medicine for me. They seem a bit bemused by my request but in the end agree. I leave my credit card on the ground and stand back as a gentleman comes out with my goods. He processes the transaction and leaves the goods in a bag on the ground. Onlookers stare at the weird goings on, something different for a Saturday in Cairns. I then trudge back to the hotel. On my way back to the hotel I speak to my wife who has located a local Doctor who can see me once I test negative to Covid. That’s good news.

As I arrive back at my hotel and into my room, I peel off my facemask which is saturated, and rip open the rapid antigen test. I’ve done a hundred of these so I don’t need the instructions. I’m pretty much running on automatic at this stage. I complete the test and set the timer for 15 minutes. In about five minutes I can see the two lines on the test and my worst nightmare comes true. I’ve tested positive to Covid. I’m 3000km from home. I’m on my own. And I feel like crap. At least I don’t have some exotic tropical disease!

Image of rapid antigen test showing two black lines, a positive test.
My positive RAT

I collapse on the bed, exhausted. I take some Panadol, drink some water and try and clear my head to make some decisions about what to do next. I call my wife and give her the bad news. She leaps into action and calls Paula, a colleague. Between them they ensure the local staff are aware of the situation and plans are put in place for the next seven days, the period of my isolation. I then notify Ron, our chief executive officer, and other relevant staff at Vision Australia.

With that out of the way I again collapse onto the bed and try and rest.

Not wanting to let the local families down that had planned to attend Career Sampler I arrange to dial in and attend the session remotely. I’m still feeling terrible, but I’ve come all this way and the expectations of our clients are high so I didn’t want to disappoint them. I Zoom into CareerSampler and speak to the local families. In a way my temporary incarceration is insignificant compared to what these families will face over the next 15 years as they prepare and work with their children to ensure that they can lead an independent and productive life. 

With Career Sampler finally over I have a real chance to rest now. I crawl into bed and hope that sleep steals me away from this nightmare for a few hours.

The next 24 hours are hell on earth. For anyone that has had Covid you know what I’m talking about. The throbbing headache, sore throat, the aching limbs, the cough, the incessant cough that just doesn’t settle down.

Sunday morning finally dawns, I lie in bed feeling as if I’ve just faced a barrage of fast bowling from the bodyline era. I look around the room in a daze, this is my world for the next seven days. It’s modern enough: there is a large TV hung high on the wall, I think to myself I won’t be able to see that. I notice there are no bedside tables, that’s weird. The bathroom is small but modern and functional. There is a single lounge chair and a small coffee table. A coffee making machine, I don’t drink coffee. And a fridge, you know one of those tiny little fridges that fit pretty much nothing.

I eventually muster the strength to speak to someone at the hotel. I let them know of my situation and they are more than accommodating. They arrange a room change for me, I now have a balcony. But still no bedside tables.

I contact the Department of Health and register my positive rapid antigen test. I notify health matters at Vision Australia. I then settle in for the next seven days of doing not very much. Right now, if I could sleep I could sleep for three days, but my headache and my throat just don’t allow it.

In good news, the wonderful team from up this way arrange a care package for me. Plenty of water, some snacks, an “I love Cairns” T-shirt, some more medication and a whole heap of get well wishes. This buoys my spirit as the 28 degree day turns into a 26 degree evening.

As the news spreads of my predicament family members, friends, colleagues text me and call me to see how I’m going. This really lifts my spirits. I’m not the first person to enter hotel isolation and I’m sure I won’t be the last. It is what it is. The irony is not lost of me. I’ve done so much travel and I’ve been so cautious but somehow, I’ve always knew I was going to end up stuck in a hotel thousands of kilometres from home.

We’ve all heard, we’ve all read, and we’ve all seen splashed across our TV screens the mental health impact that Covid has had. In those dark hours on Saturday morning I could see myself spiralling out of control. I felt helpless. I felt lost. But my supports, my wife, my colleagues, my friends will help me get through.

By Monday I’m feeling a lot better. I make a conscious decision to embrace the isolation. I can’t change my situation but I certainly can control it. So I exercise by doing laps around the room. I create little routines such as keeping my kitchen area tidy (it is only about 30 cm² so it’s not too hard to keep that tidy). I arrange a grocery delivery, nothing fancy: a loaf of bread and some cheese so I can have a sandwich during the day. That becomes another routine: I  sit on my balcony each day andlisten to the news or some music and eat a sandwich and just embrace the loneliness, embrace my situation. The Cairns air is warm on my face. I listen to the birds chirp, the noise from the street below as buses and trucks trundle around, the sounds of tradesmen working nearby and the blast of the old Harley Davidson that must call this part of Cairns home. 

By Wednesday I’m feeling a lot better. I participate in a number of zoom meetings with my team and colleagues and catch up on some email. By 5.00pm though I’m exhausted. Covid is still with me, I can feel it wanting to bring me down, and I’m not ready to fight so I succumb to the tiredness and go to bed. 

Thursday, I can feel my old self wanting to break the shackles of Covid. I’m a lot brighter at a number of meetings and get on top of an ever-mounting list of emails. I’m feeling good within myself. Family, friends and colleagues continue to check-in which keeps my spirits high. Only two more full days of isolation. And I test negative to Covid.

Image of a RAT, showing one line, negative
My negative RAT

I wake on Friday feeling a lot better. It’s a glorious day in Cairns, the sun is shining (as always), there’s a light breeze in the air as I stand on my balcony breathing in the warm winter climate. As I think about going home on Sunday a wave of despair washes over me. As much as I have embraced the loneliness and the isolation, it has been tough. I’ve been confined to a space no bigger than your typical bedroom all week. I haven’t seen another human being all week.

I review my calendar and get ready for a series of meetings with my team on Friday. I know I can get through this.

As 5.00pm draws near I find myself quite tired. The meetings I have attended have certainly taken it out of me, Covid is lingering in my system. I get another early night hoping for a great night sleep.

Saturday morning comes quickly as I sleep through the early hours, allowing my body to recover. I enjoy a cup of tea on my balcony and reflect on the week. The good thing about being isolated has protectedmy wife from getting Covid from me. It has also allowed me to recover away from the normal hustle and bustle of a busy lifestyle. Although I don’t recommend it for everyone, in fact I don’t recommend it for anyone, it has been incredibly tough. At my absolute worst last Saturday all I wanted was someone to be with me, yet I was all alone. As the virus took hold on Sunday and Monday again the loneliness, the isolation, my stark surroundings all contributed to a difficult time. As I embraced the isolation towards the end of the week I kept myself busy and reminded myself that this hiatus will be short lived.

The traffic travelling up and down the street outside my balcony reminds me of one constant. Life goes on. The world continues to revolve as each of us battle difficulties, victories, trials, and tribulations. I’ve survived my battle this week, as I turn in on Saturday evening, my next journey begins! The trip home, reuniting with my wife and getting back to living life.

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