'The challenge was seeing patients go one after another' - medical intern reflects on 1 year of Covid-19 in SA

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  • Frontline workers say they have learnt a great deal since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • They believe the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine is the start of a brighter future.
  • A nurse who got the jab on Tuesday said she was upset about PPE corruption.

Frontline healthcare workers say there is hope for a brighter future now that the Covid-19 vaccine is being rolled out in the country – something they never thought would happen a year ago.

On Thursday, 5 March 2020, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that a 38-year-old man from KwaZulu-Natal, who travelled to Italy, had tested Covid-19 positive.

From that day, the health sector was never the same as confirmed cases spiked day by day, wreaking havoc in South African hospitals, homes and public spaces.

READ | Covid-19: First batch of vaccine doses administered as cases climb to 1 516 262

Anxious healthcare workers had to step up and face the challenge of treating Covid-19 patients with the little knowledge they had about the virus. As the going got tough, patients, doctors, nurses and hospital support staff also started dying from the virus.

The vaccine roll-out in the country has brought back all those memories to those who are on the frontline daily.

Vunyiwe Caroline Dube, a nurse at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, was among the first to get the jab on Tuesday.

Infected daughter and grandson

She did a victory dance, saying, "New symptom is now 'hyperactive'," as she walked out of the hall after being inoculated.

Dube said she was honoured to have been a member of the first team to treat Gauteng's patient zero, Glynne Mitchelle, when she was admitted on 7 March 2020. She is now also among the first healthcare workers to receive the vaccine at the hospital.

Reflecting on the past year, Sister Dube described it as "hell". Dube, who also tested positive along the way, said it was not easy, mainly because there was no treatment for Covid-19.

"I didn't have anyone who succumbed to the virus from my family, but I infected my daughter, who was 26 years old by then, and her son was six months old. I was more worried about them and I felt so guilty that I brought the virus to them," Dube said.

But although it has been a tough year, Dube said there were some highlights for her because she had learnt a lot in the process. Dube, who has been a nurse for more than 20 years, said she had been informed she was a "brilliant" counsellor for other staffers at the hospital who had tested positive for the virus.

She said her lifestyle had changed and she was now exercising more than she had done before the virus.

Dube said the last year had its challenges, especially with the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), but there was now a "slight improvement".

She said:

We were concentrating on coronavirus, wanting to save our patients, and people were stealing from the things we needed to have to treat patients, and that did not sit well with me.

Second-year medical intern Dr Nikhil Maharaj, who also got the jab, said starting a career amid a pandemic was stressful, but he persevered.

Maharaj, who works in the emergency department at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, said being placed in hospitals during the pandemic had its challenges, but he adapted.

"The challenge was seeing patients go one after another and obviously not being used to seeing such deaths on a frequent basis. It's not nice for anyone to witness. But I wouldn't like to say that you get used to it, but it toughens you, especially as a doctor," the 24-year-old intern said.

READ | The data is in: Covid-19 vaccines are proving to be crucial in curbing the pandemic

Clinical programme coordinator for infection prevention and control at the hospital Sinah Grace Mahamose said losing colleagues, friends and family members was traumatic.

She said a lot had happened at the hospital since the first Covid-19 patient was admitted, and that required intensive training for staffers who were also confused about the virus.

Mahamose said the hospital had planned well around what needed to happen for things to go smoothly, which helped improve morale.

"Some of my family members are still living with the side-effects of the disease, and our lives changed drastically because we don't do the things we used to love doing. I don't think we will ever go back to the way it was before," she said.

Another staffer at infection control Fezeka Legodi said she tested positive and lost her husband to the virus.

Legodi said she believed the sector had improved in making PPE available across the board.

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