Anyone with young children at home has probably joked about needing a nice, long, solo holiday away from them at some stage. For GRACE Collective member Erin Hughes, that fantasy became something of a nightmare when she contracted coronavirus after a short business trip to the US.
With three kids under the age of five, not to mention two businesses to run, ‘busy’ is just a way of life for the founder of sustainable homewares brand hygge:liv – but, she says, that’s going to change after this experience. She’s now been self-isolating away from her family for 23 days, and with the virus showing no sign of easing, she’s not sure when she’ll be able to finally reunite with them. “I’ve always struggled with slowing down and just living for now”, she tells us. But now, “I have learnt that I don’t want or need to go back to such a hectic, busy life. It’s taught me to slow down and focus on what’s important.”
Erin’s experience has been confusing and at times scary – from a text message bungle from the health department that almost sent her home to her family with a confirmed case of coronavirus, to her battle to qualify for testing when she knew she was at risk.
But despite all its challenges, there have been silver linings to Erin’s quarantine experience. Her appreciation for the little things has never been so high. Every day, her brother in law leaves a coffee on the deck for her (“I owe him big time”). “So many beautiful family friends are constantly calling and seeing if I need anything and have also been in touch with my family to see if they can help.” And of course, she has “the biggest cuddle ever” in store for her husband and children. “I was never great at being home with kids all day every day. However after being through what I have been through, I can’t wait to do that.”
Erin tells us how it all unfolded…
You decided to self-isolate away from your family after returning from a business trip to the US - although you weren't displaying any symptoms. That must have been a hard decision to make with such young kids at home…
Yes, I went on a short business trip to LA & NYC. Unfortunately, I never made it to NYC as everything started to shut down. Things got really serious in the US really quickly. I decided after 48 hours that I needed to get home, as I didn’t want to get stuck in the USA. Having 3 kids aged five and under, I couldn’t risk being stuck over the other side of the world. Luckily, Qantas put me on a flight that night to get home, which was a few days before I was due to fly back.
As I waited at the lounge for the flight, an announcement was made that The Australian Government had enforced that anyone landing in Australia from overseas would have to go into self-isolation as soon as we landed. At this point no one knew what that really meant, or what the rules were. Apparently, I could have potentially self-quarantined at home with the family, however we would have had to ensure that the kids remained more than 10 feet away from me at all times, and I could not come into contact with any family members. I have a 5 year old, a 4 year old and a 22 month year old. I just knew that wouldn’t be possible.
It was a really hard decision as the thought of being away from the kids and my family for two weeks was heartbreaking. Especially when I thought it was unlikely I would actually have coronavirus. The only thing that made the decision somewhat easy was that the government had enforced it, and if I did get sick I wasn’t worried for myself – I just didn’t want to pass the virus on to my kids, family, or anyone else. Thankfully I can sleep at night knowing I haven’t made anyone sick.
I was fortunate that I could go straight to my dad’s beach house on The Great Ocean Road. However, for people that didn’t have the option of an empty house, or if money was an issue, I’m not sure how they would have managed self-quarantining. The best thing that’s happened is the government sending people from overseas to hotels, so at least people are safe and have a place to go to self-quarantine. It would have been far easier to go home and be with my family, however I just couldn’t risk it considering how serious this virus is and the effect it has on people.
Were you surprised to find there wasn't any enforcement of the self-isolation rule when you arrived in Melbourne?
We were all absolutely shocked. We had no idea what to expect when landing in Melbourne. I assumed I would be stuck at the airport all day so officials could check us all, maybe even temperatures, as well as document where we were going. The Qantas crew also had no information, as we were one of the first flights to land post the new quarantine rule coming in. It was extremely confusing for people who were going on to other domestic flights from this one. You would assume they had to quarantine in Melbourne, due to potentially spreading the virus on the domestic flights.
When we landed someone came onto the plane in a full medical uniform and protective gear. They said nothing, just came on board and then left. All we were told was to not take photos of the official that had boarded the plane – I can only assume to not create panic on social media. We all got off the plane and the airport and processes were business as usual – no one telling us what we had to do, or giving any further information on self-quarantining. We got a flyer with a couple of dot points highlighting that we had to self-quarantine. No strict rules or procedures. The airport truly was exactly the same as any other day of travel. People were able to board domestic flights, no questions asked. I was able to call the private car park where my car was parked, and the shuttle came and picked 10 of us up (all from international flights) and dropped us to our cars. It was so confusing as to what was required from us, and there were absolutely no formalities to enforce anything. Because of the risk to my family or general community I went straight to my dad’s beach house, and have now been here for 23 days. I’m still not sure when I can go home.
Did you have any help or support systems in place to get you through your isolation period?
My husband and I both have our own businesses, so we have an amazing nanny during the week. Thankfully she was able to pack me a bag of things I needed, and purchase food for me whilst in quarantine. The fact that I knew I was going into self-quarantine made it easier for me to organise.
I have been able to have things like food, coffee and other pick me up items dropped at my deck, which has been so helpful. So many beautiful family friends are constantly calling and seeing if I need anything, and have also been in touch with my family to see if they can help.
I’m also so grateful for my husband who has been truly amazing and taken on the single parent role with flying colours. It’ so stressful being away from the family, however knowing everyone is happy and healthy makes everything easier. My eldest son Archie Facetimes me several times a day, which is so gorgeous and makes me so happy. Technology has made this situation manageable. I’m able to work as normal, which I do from home generally so that’s helped me try and maintain normality. I’m also very grateful for Netflix! If I knew I was going to be still in self-quarantine now, I don’t think I would have coped and it would have been a very difficult situation to try and prepare for. When going into this, I genuinely thought it would be 14 days tops. I never imagined I would still be here, and still not know when I’m going home.
How has your family managed - did your husband have to take time off work?
We are really lucky that we have a gorgeous nanny who’s been with us for a year and a half. She has been an absolute lifesaver and I’m not sure how we would be managing without her. Thankfully the kids are used to having time with her, so we have been able to try and keep normal routine.
My husband has worked less hours, so he can be around more for the kids to make up for my absence. He is an extremely hands-on dad so this hasn’t been an adjustment for him or for the kids.
What did you do when you first started noticing symptoms? How were you diagnosed?
I started to have headaches, body aches, and to feel really tired. Initially I just thought it was probably jetlag as I often feel a bit average after short trips and long flights. However due to what was going on, I thought I should report my symptoms. It was so hard to get onto anyone and even get tested. A couple of people said I didn’t actually meet criteria for testing, which I found really odd considering I’d been in America. The local GP agreed that I could drive down and call when out the front. The doctor then put a gown, mask and gloves on and came out to the car. They took my temperature and it was 38 degrees, which was high. They swabbed me, which is so uncomfortable as they put a wire type product in the back of your throat and right up the back of your nose. It’s a very weird and uncomfortable feeling. 24 hours later I got the call saying the initial testing showed I was positive with covid19. I was honestly shocked, as I genuinely didn’t think I would have it. When it registered, it just highlighted how travel made you at higher risk of having the virus.
There was a debacle with the automated text message service from the health department. Can you tell us about that?
Only a few days after being diagnosed I received a text saying that my case was closed and I was free to go home. I knew straight away this couldn’t be right. The main reason was that I wasn’t even close to finishing my two week self-quarantine period from travelling. The fact that I was positive with coronavirus made it even more impossible to be correct.
What concerned me the most about this is that if people couldn’t cope with being in self-isolation, or away from their families, they may have just taken the text message as correct and gone home. I rang the health department as soon as I received the incorrect message and explained to them what had happened. The response was ‘no, you can’t go home’ and my response was ‘I know that, that’s why I’m calling to tell you what’s happened.’ That is the only reason they followed up with another message to say please disregard the incorrect message that was sent to you. My concern is how many people did that message go to? The follow up message was hours later, so how many people actually went home or stopped self-isolating? The discharge process really concerns me, based on the seriousness of the virus. There’s such inconsistent information, and a process where the patient just has to report that they don’t have symptoms and they are discharged.
I had a conversation with the department of health yesterday, where they stated that legally they are the only ones that can discharge people, and GPs are not relevant in this situation. My question is, how can the department of heath be responsible for discharging people when they aren’t physically checking anyone? How are they in a position to discharge people based on a conversation? We are faced with a serious virus outbreak that is causing people to become really sick – if they are wanting to reduce the risk, why aren’t they addressing this discharge issue? I worry so many people will have been discharged when they are still a risk to people.
Your kids are very young. Had you spent much time away from them before? How are you all coping?
I do go on work trips a couple of times a year, however I’m away one week at the very most. The kids are used to me being away from time to time, and as long as I bring them a present back they are happy! They keep asking me ‘what present are you bringing this time mum?’ I’ve been away for a while so I’m thinking it should be big!
This is well and truly the longest I’ve been away from the kids. It is heartbreaking not being able to be with them. I feel like I’m missing such a huge amount of time with them. It’s been 4 weeks tomorrow since I’ve been at home with them. I think I’m finding it much harder than they are, as they are being spoilt and doing lots of fun activities at home. Thankfully Facetime has been a saviour as I get to see them and talk to them. However Jordy, the youngest, hates Facetime so It’s really hard with him. He’s so young and I don’t get to have quality time with him, as he runs away every time the iPad comes out. I do get to connect with Archie and Indigo through technology, so that is what gets us through. However, I miss them like crazy. On the upside I finally got to do Jordy’s baby book in isolation, which has been on my to do list for over a year, ha! Seeing and knowing they are happy and surviving is what helps me get through this.
Are there any silver linings to your isolation time? Anything you've enjoyed or been surprised by?
Actually a lot of silver linings have come out of this. This has been an amazing learning experience. I’ve learnt to be on my own, and be incredibly independent. I never thought I could manage in isolation for 3 weeks, yet I have survived. I have learnt that I don’t want or need to go back to such a hectic, busy life. I don’t want to go back to such a crazy and high-pressured routine. It’s taught me to slow down and focus on what’s important.
This situation has also made my husband and I truly appreciate each other, and the amazing things we constantly do for our family. When life is so busy, you often forget, or take things for granted.
We will also come out of this realising so much can be done online. We don’t need to be rushing around all the time trying to get to meetings and appointments when so many can be done online. Not only will this take pressure off, it will save time and allow us to focus on the important things like time together and with our gorgeous kids.
The last 6 years have been hectic, with having three kids close together and having two businesses. I feel like I will go home a lot calmer, and ready to embrace time with the family and just living in the moment. I’ve always struggled with slowing down. This situation has meant quietening down and not being able to plan anything, as everything is so unknown.
I have also enjoyed watching Netflix, reading and having a bit more sleep than I’m used to, I must admit!
How are you managing your workload while you're in isolation and unwell? Has that been difficult?
Luckily I work from home generally. I have been able to work normally and get a heap done due to not having any distractions. Thankfully at this stage both businesses have not been affected by the economic situation due to coronavirus. Our business hygge:liv is all about cosy life and focussed on bring a state of hygge into the home. Now that people are at home more and wanting to make it a place of comfort, and a place they love being, our gift category has had a major increase in sales.
Thankfully working has been something that has made my time in isolation manageable. I love working, so this has been a great part of how I have survived. My creative communication agency The Hero Agency is also still ticking along, as so many redundancies are happening so contractors and freelance work is in demand. It’s a terrible time, and it’ s so scary not knowing what’s going to happen. However for now, we will just keep going for as long as we can, as it is a passion. The world is slightly depressing at the moment, so anything that brings happiness and distraction to our lives is a good thing. The virus is serious, however the mental health and the survival of people is equally as important.
Although I’ve had headaches, temperatures, body aches and exhaustion, I was able to maintain working during the day. However, when I realised I hadn’t been getting better I tried to slow it down slightly to try and get on top of my symptoms, so I can try and get home.
You were 'cleared' after your 14 day isolation period, but had to advocate hard for yourself because you were still experiencing symptoms. Tell us about that experience.
The Victorian Health Department are supposed to check in with all coronavirus cases every few days. For the first few days I had to constantly call them to get some guidance on my symptoms, and where my case was at. They generally seem to flag people at 10 days past diagnosis as ready to release them, providing they are well. That statement is really unclear as what is ‘feeling well’.
Unfortunately, I have a high temperature which won’t go down. They call nearly every day saying ‘we are calling to discharge you today’ and I have to interject and say ‘you can’t discharge me as I still have a temperature’. I suggested ‘why don’t I call you once I don’t have symptoms for 72 hours, and then I can be discharged?’ Originally they agreed, but have started calling me every day again.
I’ve also taken it a step further and am working with my GP to get them to check my temperature and symptoms, to help me try and get home. I was re-tested yesterday, which may not really help – if it’s negative I can’t go home as I still have symptoms, and if it’s positive, I can’t go home. It’s been a really long time to have constant symptoms. I’m starting to get worried something more serious is wrong. The health department unfortunately doesn’t look at you, they just call you. I can’t just sit here indefinitely with symptoms, I need to try and determine if I am a risk as I don’t want to be away from my kids unnecessarily. However, if I’m still a risk I don’t want to be discharged if I could make anyone sick.
When will you feel comfortable that it's safe to return home?
I don’t know! And the scary thing is that no one knows. Not the health department, and not any medical staff. I hate the fact that I’m in control of this decision, as I don’t want to make anyone sick, but desperately want to be home with my family. The only way I can go home is if I’m told I’m 100% not contagious, or my test comes back negative and I no longer have symptoms. My dream would be to be home for Easter with my family.
What do your days look like at the moment?
Exercise is such an important part of my day usually. When I was feeling better, and it was earlier days, live stream exercise was a must. However, since being diagnosed with coronavirus and having ongoing symptoms I’ve had to stop that to try and get home. My days look like this:
- Wake up, return phone calls and messages from people checking in, and from my family
- Have breakfast
- My brother in law lives locally and leaves a coffee on the deck – I owe him big time!
- Emails and work
- More phone calls
What are you most looking forward to about getting back home?
Giving my kids the biggest cuddle of their life! They will be so annoyed when I don’t leave them alone, haha. And I can’t wait to give my husband the biggest cuddle ever. He seems to have everything absolutely under control. I think he’s slightly concerned I’ll come home and throw the entire routine off balance.
I’m looking forward to giving our nanny something amazing to thank her for everything she has done, as we wouldn’t have survived this situation without her. I was never great at being home with kids all day every day and playing. However after being through what I have been through, I can’t wait to do that, and just hang out with the kids. Now that everyone has slowed down I will be able to embrace this as there’s not so much pressure on all the other areas of life. Exercise is part of my daily routine I can’t wait to go for a walk outside and get back into getting fit and healthy. I can’t even leave my property, so walking outside will be amazing.
The fact that we are all in this situation together is comforting, as no one is unaffected. I’m just hoping everyone supports and helps each other at this time. It’s disappointing to see so much judgement, and people being so nasty to others on social media. We all need to help and support one another as you just don’t know what people are going through, or how they are feeling on any given day during this hard time. The only way we will survive is to be kind, and supportive, and go above and beyond for the people that truly need it.