On the pandemic frontline

Professor Rhonda Stuart became the face of the fight against COVID-19 when she was filmed as the first Victorian to receive a vaccine. But it’s her tireless work behind the scenes that has been making a difference.

No one really expects to live through a world-altering pandemic – not even the infection prevention experts who train for such a crisis.

“You do get ready for pandemics and outbreaks and all the rest of it, but I never really thought I would be at the centre of something like this,” says Professor Rhonda Stuart.

As medical director for infection prevention and epidemiology at Monash Health, she has led the response to the largest infectious disease outbreak of our time.

It was in January 2020 when Stuart had the first inkling of what the future held in store. A week before Monash Health received Victoria’s first patient with COVID-19, she visited the emergency department to check what procedures were in place if such a thing happened.

“There were no signs up and I talked to the triage nurses, and they hadn’t heard of Wuhan,” she says.

“I thought, ‘Oh this is interesting’, so we got our processes ready and just a week later I got a call saying there was a man who had been in Wuhan a week ago and now he had a fever. From there it hasn’t stopped.”

Rhonda Stuart worked on the COVID frontlines.
Stuart led Monash Health's response to the largest infectious disease outbreak of our time.

Leading pandemic response

No one has been immune from the pandemic’s dramatic impact on everyday life, but few have had their lives altered as dramatically as Stuart.

At the forefront of Monash Health’s response to the coronavirus, she has gone from heading a team of 12 in the infection prevention unit to leading hundreds across internal and external contact tracing and screening. She has also been managing the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, with Monash Health.

For someone who does not enjoy the spotlight, she has had to learn to endure media interest, including being filmed as the first person in Victoria to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I was so overcome by all the cameras and the lights flashing, but in hindsight I realise it was the right move to make – reassuring Monash staff that if I had the vaccine, it must be alright,” she says of the discomfiting experience. “I wouldn’t have considered myself a leader in any way at the start of all this, but I’m starting to learn what you need to do.”

Personal connection

Conducting a blood test.
Stuart was drawn to study infectious diseases after a relative was diagnosed with HIV.

Stuart was drawn to study infectious diseases after a close family member became HIV-positive.

“I began to understand discrimination through his eyes, and this had a profound impact on my approach to medicine. I specialised in infectious diseases to find out more about his disease in the hope that I could help him.”

When he developed AIDS in the mid-'90s, she was working at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. She cared for him as well as many other young men and women dealing with the devastating illness.

“Our main tools were comfort and compassion … [but] his lasting legacy is that he led me to a career that has been filled with many rewards and many challenges.”

Stuart explains that infection prevention has traditionally been regarded as the unexciting side of medicine. “The mundane act of making people wash their hands, making sure they wear a mask, policing them to do the right thing. In January last year it completely flipped, so now it’s the first thing everybody asks: is it [the practice] safe?”

Answering that question has not always proven straightforward. Shifting medical evidence on the role of masks, protocols for intensive care and other aspects of COVID-19’s transmission and treatment has required a group effort from the Monash Health leadership team.

“Navigating the right thing to do is tricky at times, but I work closely with a lot of colleagues. We trust each other and listen to each other, which I think is really important.”

Matter of trust

The sense of trust that carried Monash Health through the dark days of Victoria’s second wave grew through Stuart’s weekly staff meetings detailing highly sensitive information, including numbers of staff infections and personal protective equipment stocks.

The State Government asked her team to review and improve internal responses at Peninsula Health when it suffered a large internal outbreak. “That was a reflection of our internal contact tracing processes," says Stuart. "It was rewarding being able to hand those processes over to help someone else.”

A teaching opportunity

Monash students have not been forgotten amid the noise and haste of the pandemic. Not one to waste a teaching opportunity, Stuart ensured those willing could be deployed to contact tracing and the screening and vaccination clinics.

“They’ve been a really important group of people to have along for the ride," she says. "Hopefully some of them will go into infectious diseases and hold the flag.”

For herself, the pandemic has been the culmination of her life’s work. “It’s been the busiest time of my professional life,” she says. “It’s been exhausting, challenging and scary.

"But I feel I’ve made a difference, which is not something a lot of people get the opportunity to be able to say. I’m very grateful for that.”