REVIEW | In Our Own Words: Harrowing personal accounts from nurses on the Covid-19 front line

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BOOK: In Our Own Words: Nurses on the front line by Siedine Coetzee, Hester Klopper, and Jonathan Jansen. 

In early 2020, global panic set in as Covid-19 spread like a rabid beast across continents. Most civilians were encouraged to go into hiding, adhering to a hard lockdown that would hopefully quell the spread of the virus. Nurses on the front line, however, were called to run towards the beast instead of away from it, and now they’re offering a glimpse – in their own words – into what pandemic life was like for them.

Most of South Africa eased into a joyful new-new-normal in June, when government scrapped the last of the major Covid-19 regulations. And, from the moment Health Minister Joe Phaahla gazetted the repeal, millions of us dared to put our collective trauma behind us and get on with it, but for one cohort of South Africans who have yet to catch their breath.  

Nurses who fought on the front line are among those who witnessed the genesis of Covid hysteria and, in testament to their commitment to their pledge of service, powered through two-plus years of desperate uncertainty and war-like working conditions to serve us.  

Our nurses may not be the only frontline workers to have held our nation up during the pandemic, but a new book about their individual experiences, in their own words, bears witness to the depths of trauma this cohort bore on our behalf. 

In Our Own Words: Nurses on the front line showcases the mettle of our nurses during a time that required near-superhuman bravery, resilience and growth. The project was initiated by distinguished professor and author Jonathan Jansen, with researchers Siedine Coetzee and Hester Klopper, who are both nursing professionals in the academic space. 

Information gathering 

In mid-2021 – as our country faced the third Covid wave featuring the deadly Delta variant – this trio of professors invited nursing professionals from across South Africa to submit their unique stories. 

The call was for any nurse in the healthcare sector to share their personal experience of the challenges, perseverance and resilience they faced and drew on while fulfilling their commitment as frontline workers during the pandemic. 

Out of 75 submissions, 28 top stories were chosen by the editors for inclusion in the book. The stories were grouped into chapters according to three themes – trauma, resilience and growth – and were only lightly edited to ensure that the nurses’ stories remained undiluted and "in their own words". 

The result? A moving depiction of the fortitude and faith of our nursing collective. Harrowing personal accounts of people who not only fought the deadly new virus on behalf of patients, but also faced it themselves. Heart-breaking anecdotes that showcase both the professionalism of our nurses, as well as their humanity. Stories that expose ugly cracks in our system, while offering insight into what we can do better moving forward. 

The backbone of every health system

As the authors of In Our Own Words point out, 2020 was initially earmarked by the World Health Organisation to celebrate the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. At the time, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had acknowledged nurses and midwives as "the backbone of every health system". The organisation was calling on countries to invest in nurses and midwives "as part of their commitment to health for all". 

But, with the sudden and catastrophic global spread of a deadly new virus, the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife morphed into a fear-filled fight for survival. It became a desperate call for all hands on deck, with little regard for (or time to consider) whether our medical professionals were adequately prepared for the onslaught. 

In Our Own Words: Nurses on the Frontline by Siedi
In Our Own Words: Nurses on the Frontline by Siedine Coetzee, Hester Klopper, and Jonathan Jansen.

'We are all a bit broken'

Not one nurse who contributed to this book would deny that 2020, bleeding into 2021, was the year their pledge to serve humanity "with conscience and dignity" was truly put to the test. 

Every story offers insight into the psychological toll of the pandemic on both the individual and the nursing profession as a whole. If nurses weren’t operating at full steam with little to no respite or emotional support, they were fighting the virus at home, ridden with guilt. Not only were they incapacitated and unable to serve alongside their colleagues, but they had brought the virus into their homes, potentially compromising their loved ones. 

Many of the contributors admit to being burnt out, irritable, anxious and depressed while on the job. Being forced to decide who of their patients would live and who would die was particularly affronting to their moral code. Some write about their need to disassociate just to get through the day, while others report blacking out as a result of unprecedented trauma and fatigue. 

"In my opinion, I think we are all a bit broken," writes one nurse. Another describes their inability to keep patients at arm’s length: "[But] once you hear a four-year-old in a voice note praying for his father, you lose the distance and it becomes very personal."

Unparalleled resilience

While most civilians now consider Covid-19 a particularly hairy nightmare that they’re relieved to see the back of, In Our Own Words reminds us of the people who fought tirelessly on our behalf. Whatever trauma we faced, they faced with us and alongside us, multiple times over. 

This book takes the reader to the pulse of the dreaded pandemic where, amid fear, loneliness and a lack of adequate preparation and psychosocial support, a cohort of people drew on their last reserves, buffered by unparalleled resilience, courage, camaraderie and community during what is arguably one of the scariest times in living memory.

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