Balm before the storm

By Francesca Emms
Photo by Adrian Vercoe

Featured in Capital #76
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In the midst of another nation-wide lockdown, we looked back to our interview with Dr Michelle Balm, who specialises in infectious diseases. She spoke to Francesca Emms just a few months ago.

Dr Michelle Balm spends her days looking after people with infections, trying to prevent infections, and helping to diagnose infections. If she looks familiar, that may be because you’ve seen her on the telly, addressing the media alongside Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Michelle’s the clinical leader for Infection Services at Capital and Coast DHB, an infectious diseases physician, and a clinical microbiologist working at Wellington’s Southern Community Laboratories.

Lockdown was “one of the busiest periods of my working life,” says Michelle. She worked 14- to 16-hour days, “dropping down to 12” on the weekends, and close to 50 days straight without a day off. “I’m a 46-year-old married woman with two kids. I have a fantastically supportive family and they just understood that this was something that I needed to do. But it was really difficult. I would come home around 7 o’clock at night, have some food with them, maybe spend an hour with them, and start doing more work. I probably wouldn’t stop until after midnight most nights.”

Was she worried about bringing the virus into her home? “No, not at all. That’s the important thing about having good infection prevention processes. If you’ve got the system set up right, the risk is actually minimized. Besides, it was seldom me who was going out to actually see people with coughs or colds. I was making sure it was safe for the people that had to do that.”

At the end of 2020 Michelle received the Chief Executive’s award at the CCDHB’s Ngā Tohu Angitu/Celebrating our Success Awards ceremony, for her “tireless efforts to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic”. If you ask her about it, she’ll tell you about everyone else working behind the scenes to keep us safe. “There was a huge effort from an enormous number of people right across the DHB. Some really dedicated talented people were putting in crazy hours to try and get the best possible outcomes for Wellington.” Michelle says the labs are the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic. “The whole system there was quite phenomenal.”

Surely things have calmed down now? “For me, and many people here, Covid-19, hasn’t stopped. Though the pace is a little less frenetic.” Michelle is involved in the oversight of our region’s managed isolation facilities, and is working with teams in the hospital to update their preparations. “We may have to respond to local clusters. We’re hoping never to need our plans, but we’ve got to be in a situation we can activate them very quickly.” Michelle lives near Lyall Bay – “the beach is my happy place.” Watching people swim, walk, and play, she’s very aware of the freedom we have. “Every time we get to catch up with friends or family, or go to a cafe or a restaurant, I’m so grateful for what we’ve got here. But it’s really fragile. Our situation could change very quickly, especially with the very rapid spread of the new, more transmissible variants of the virus. I think that’s the big difference between what I’m thinking at the moment, compared with what I was thinking of last year – we’ve come so far, we need to be thankful for what we’ve got and make the most of it. But we can’t afford to be complacent. This is not over yet.”


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