OPINION | Covid-19: Remembering healthcare workers like Sister Susan Lawrence and so many others

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Healthcare workers talk to a Covid-19 patient. (Getty)
Healthcare workers talk to a Covid-19 patient. (Getty)

Eight-four healthcare workers in the Western Cape have died of Covid-19, seven in the past two weeks, writes Andrea Mendelsohn.

Her name was Susan Lawrence.

A dedicated 54-year-old staff nurse at Retreat Day Hospital, wife of Alfred, mother of Danielle and Chevonne, grandmother of Cole, Junior, and Saskia. She was known for bringing three bags of food to each shift and sharing generously.

A peacemaker among colleagues, Sister Lawrence always encouraged others to rise above petty disputes and give more.

"Now, can I get an Amen to that please?" she would proclaim. She loved nursing. Never said no to a Steenberg neighbour with questions about pregnancy or bedsores in need of dressing after hours.

Compassionate, responsible. In our last conversation after a long night shift, she smiled and waved, saying: "Bye doctor, drive home safe."

READ | Opinion: Covid-19: A doctor's open letter to Cape Town

On 18 December she tested positive for Covid-19.

We have had a lot of staff test positive. They stay home with mild symptoms and return. It's almost routine.

On Christmas Day, her daughter sent a small request: please drive by and wish my mom well, she's struggling. WhatsApp prayers fluttered for a speedy recovery.

Sister Lawrence was admitted to hospital on 26 December. On 31 December, her oxygen dropped to 74% on a non-rebreather face mask. The district hospital applied for an ICU bed that would provide the high-flow nasal oxygen she needed, but she was turned down. ICU beds are full. 

At 19:00 on New Year's Eve, the message went out on the staff group chatroom:

“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that I have to inform the Retreat family that our beloved colleague has gone to be with the Lord.”

"No. God No."

"Sis. Don't lie."

"Maybe there's a mistake. It's not her."

"My heart is bouncing in my chest. I feel anxious. It can't be real."

A voicenote sobbed: "I don't know if I can work tomorrow because I cannot stand it. She was my best friend. I can't handle it. Oh God."

A horrific end to a terrible year. That same day a nurse practitioner from District Six Day Hospital died.

The day before the chief director of finances and the manager of food services at Hermanus Hospital died. In total, 84 healthcare workers in the Western Cape have died of Covid-19, seven in the past two weeks.

This is Covid-19 in the Western Cape. Hospitals are full. ICUs are full. Seven private hospitals are on divert, meaning they will not accept new patients. Seventy-four tons of oxygen are used per day. The number of healthcare workers currently infected stands at 926. More than 8 000 people have died of Covid-19.

Last week, my hospital's Covid-19 positivity rate was 60%. I must see 50 Covid-19 patients per day. The risk is immense. The urgency is real. Healthcare workers cannot take care of you if we are sick, in quarantine, or dead. We need a vaccine, now.

READ | Opinion: The second wave and Covid-19 tests: Don't be selfish, isolate until you know your result

On 7 January, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced 1.5 million doses would be in South Africa by February for healthcare workers. Audible sighs of relief. Cheers. The end is palpable for myself and my colleagues. Yet there is still the disease, ravishing our communities.

On New Year's Day, a 32-year-old mother of two arrived at our emergency centre with an oxygen saturation of 32%. She died within an hour of arrival before she could be transferred to hospital.

The accepting doctor at the referral hospital messaged: "I'm so sorry. I have a 40-year-old patient here with oxygen saturations of 66% and no ICU bed available that is going the same way. It's a horror show."

Watching a patient gasp for oxygen is horrific.

All South Africans need the vaccine, now. We must urgently flesh out a detailed vaccine rollout plan to end this nightmare, not only for healthcare workers, but for all.

South Africa cannot withstand waves three and four, nor can its economy survive repeated lockdowns. No matter what the cost, life is worth it.

READ | Mandy Wiener: Vaccine hesitancy and fake news: Government needs to up its communication

For Sister Lawrence, and everyone else that died of Covid-19 in 2020, we miss you. But now there is hope.

In 2021, we must (still) mask up, wash up, space out, socialise outside, and roll up our sleeves to get the job done. We must all work together - public and private, government and civil society - to vaccinate 40 million people. No excuses, no fighting. Our lives are at stake.

("Now can I get an Amen to that?" Susan Lawrence, 1966-2020)

Andrea Mendelsohn is a senior medical officer in the Western Cape Department of Health. She writes in her personal capacity.

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