At Cape Town’s Tygerberg Hospital, a robot named Quintin played its part in the fight to save Nceba Simayile’s life as he lay intubated on a ventilator, struggling to breathe.
Simayile (50) from Bellville serves as a pastor at both the Kalkfontein and Kayamandi Baptist Churches.
Before becoming a church leader, he worked in banking. Simayile says he had not been to a hospital in all his life, until August 10, when he tested positive for Covid-19. After this followed a 46-day medical marathon at Tygerberg’s A5 Covid-19 ICU (Intensive Care Unit).
On September 3, Simayile’s condition rapidly deteriorated, leaving doctors no choice but to put him on a ventilator. On September 4, ICU staff notified Simayile’s wife, Vuyelwa, that his end was near. They invited her and the pair’s five children to say goodbye to him via a virtual meeting, courtesy of Quintin. At the time of the virtual meeting, Simayile was heavily sedated.
“I remember feeling very confused,” he tells Spotlight. “I remember seeing Quintin, seeing my wife and my family at home, praying for me to live. People from the church were there in the house, praying for me. I was confused about why they are praying. I didn’t realise that my hands were tied to the bed, and that there was this big pipe in my mouth. It was strange, not once did it cross my mind that I could die,” he says.
“Later my wife told me that on September 4 they had called her, saying I only had a few more moments to live. They briefed her before the meeting. They told her that I would be able to hear them but would not be able to respond.”
However, Simayile was spared. On September 7, he was significantly better and regained consciousness.
“I woke up, and the doctor said to me it’s a miracle that I am alive. Not many people recover after being on a ventilator, they told me. Indeed it was a miracle, I believe it was seeing those prayers for me when I was very sick.”
What is Quintin?
A computer tablet on wheels, Quintin is equipped to do video and voice calls, allowing family members to “visit” with patients in the ICU. Since August 25, the Double Robotics robot has helped put family members in touch with Covid-ICU patients at the hospital. In some cases it allowed families to say goodbye for the last time. The meetings are private, as Quintin is steered remotely via a mobile phone app from outside the ward.
Clinical director of Sunskill Laboratory, Professor Ian Vlok, who is also head of Stellenbosch University’s division of neurosurgery, says Quintin was named by staff at the Covid-ICU. The name derives from “Quintin Quarantino” a play on Quintin Tarantino, the famous film director. On the night of Simayile’s virtual prayer meeting as his vitals plummeted, ICU staff controlled Quintin.
“The doctor was there with Quintin the robot, so they obviously spoke to my wife beforehand, explaining what was going on,” says Simayile. “My wife, and my family, my loved ones; it was a very bad experience for them, seeing me like that. I don’t wish it on anyone, but we are very grateful for that meeting, and the miracle of my survival.”
He recalls the lonely hours at the hospital.
“In ICU, there is a nurse or a doctor every one hour and thirty minutes. It was an amazing service. They were the best, they really monitor you. If anything happens, the doctor is there. But when they go away, my mind would start wandering. When these moments came, they were the worst moments of my life, remembering my loved ones.”
As he grew stronger, Simayile had more virtual meetings with his wife and children.
“For me to be able to speak to my wife via Quintin, it was good, it was comforting. Although not good enough. Because love is about touch, about hugs. The only time my wife became happy, was when I finally came home to her. For me, it helped to have a positive mind[set]. I kept on thinking, I will come out of here healthy – one day. It calmed my nerves.”
A helper who does not grow tired
Stellenbosch University’s surgical training centre, Sunskill Laboratory, owns Quintin.
Vlok says after Covid-19, Quintin will return to Sunskill Laboratory where he will resume assisting with cutting-edge training.
In March, Professor Coenie Koegelenberg, senior Tygerberg and Stellenbosch University pulmonologist, first came up with the idea to use Quintin as a healthcare helper who does not grow tired, and who cannot get infected. Later they decided to use Quintin for virtual meetings between patients and family to lessen patient anxiety.
Koegelenberg noted that it is difficult for healthcare workers to provide psychological support through a mask and goggles “because they look like aliens, and it is difficult to hear”.
Quintin’s virtual meetings are usually controlled by volunteers from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Psychiatry, who founded the “Resiliency Clinic” at Tygerberg to support healthcare staff with the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At present, psychologist Maryke Hewett from the Department of Psychiatry operates Quintin from a room adjoining the Covid-ICU while watching through a glass pane two days a week.
At the height of the pandemic, when the Covid-ICU housed between 25 and 30 patients, Hewett and her colleagues operated Quintin there five days a week.
Now patient numbers have decreased. The last time Hewett visited the ward, there were only six patients, she says.
“In the ward, things change so rapidly,” she adds. “One day there are six patients, the next day there are four. Patients are discharged, or they pass away. There are crises all the time. The sisters and nurses at the ward were very concerned about the patients and families, about the lack of closure. So that’s how this initiative came about.”
The virtual meetings with Quintin normally last up to 30 minutes.
“If it’s the patient’s first time with Quintin, a nurse or sister will brief him or her, telling them what to expect,” says Hewett. “If they are awake, we ask them who they want to speak to. For example, one patient said, ‘I don’t want to speak to my mum, I don’t want her to see me like this. I’d rather speak to my brother’. We want to empower patients like that,” she says.
“When we do virtual visits with patients who are unconscious or sedated and incubated, we give family members a description of what to expect. We tell them the patient has tubes in his or her mouth, and so on. It can be upsetting, so we prepare them. For example, that there will be no reciprocal engagement.”
End of life sessions
Of all the virtual meetings Hewett has arranged, four turned out to be the last ones before patients succumbed to the virus.
“When a person is worsening, when their vitals are dropping, we do end-of-life sessions,” she says. Hewett says they ask the family members if they want to be there as this might be their last visit.
“People quickly get together, praying, singing. I leave them alone, I put my app on mute to give them privacy. It gets emotional. These goodbye sessions can be anything from five minutes to two hours. For end-of-life sessions, I normally tell the family, you take your time.”
Meanwhile, Simayile is getting back on his feet, even though he is not back at work yet.
“After the illness, I had to learn to walk all over again,” he says. “But with the help of my wife and children, I am learning to get around again. Soon I will be living a normal life again. And by December I’m planning to be fully fit,” he says.
*This article was produced for Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest