SA state doctor: Braced. Scared. Brave
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President Cyril Ramaphosa's lockdown extension gives the gift of reprieve to those on the frontline of South Africa's fight against Covid-19. A young state doctor, Dr Agata Ogonowski Bizos, writes about bracing for the tsunami.
It's another Saturday night surgical call and usually I expect the worst; excited for the looming challenge of multiple intoxicated trauma patients… but this Saturday – it's apocalyptic.
One stabbed chest. One. And that alone is the trauma casualties for this month-end logged for my night shift.
Elsewhere in Gauteng, Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (colloquially known to all as The Gen) Trauma unit is, according to one colleague, empty and another colleague reports it was the least number of trauma cases they have seen in Chris Hani Baragwanath ever. But we can’t be locked down forever.
The roads are ghostly as I drive on to work, remembering them from not so long ago as aggravatingly, frustratingly populated. I swallow the huge lump in my throat feeling somewhat ironically guilty for ever cursing the morning traffic.
My friends are all at home: baking, cooking, blogging about their skincare and exercise routines or how frustrated they are to be stuck with their children, and here I go – another day as a young doctor in the lockdown of Covid-19.
Work as per usual has become increasingly more eerie. I arrive at work, place on the N95 mask I had been given a week or so ago (new ones aren't really available) hoping the UV radiation of the ever so distant sun has burnt off those nasty little viral beings, those live invisible particles of bacteria and virus that I have swept through along with me on ward rounds. Every patient is a suspect, and everyone (including myself) is now assumed to be guilty until proven otherwise.
Elective surgeries have been cancelled, patients have been discharged for wound care at their ramshackle homes, and clinics are being geared down. We are preparing for war. A biological war. And we, just like the soldiers of previous world wars, know it's coming. To hit us hard – an epidemiological atomic bomb, and so we wait. Braced. Scared. Brave.
The first case of coronavirus caught our High Care Unit by surprise, and since that day I cannot consider being present at work without a face mask or visor, regardless of what the experts say. You see, it seems that Covid-19 was underestimated, and I am most certainly twice shy.
The friendly faces of colleagues, nursing staff, cleaners and porters have been blocked out by whichever masks they've managed to find; a hallway I once knew as a collection of smiles has been bleached – all I see is the fear in everyone's eyes as we carry on, with our business, as per usual. There is a strange sense of solidarity as you lock eyes with colleagues in casualty or in the wards, but there is an obvious, tangible sense of foreboding for what we're sure is to come.
Coming from a family of doctors, I know this is something not my father and father-in-law nor my professors or mentors have experienced in their lives. Humanity has lost so many already. Frontliners around the globe have become heroes. Essential workers aren't what you thought they were three weeks ago - altruism trumps share options, medicine beats money, cleanliness truly is holy.
We have been again called to the frontline to assist with screening and testing for this invisible disease, but you see – we have actually always been here, fighting on the frontline for the health and humanity of our fellow South Africans. Some of my friends are even deeper in the frontline than myself – collapsing with TB, ailed by meningitis, traumatised by the ARVs to stave off HIV from a needlestick injury. We are now isolating ourselves from our families and loved ones but not from our patients or our responsibilities. We are putting ourselves at risk. Every day. With or without corona.
One thought that strikes me though, common to each of us: whether we are at the medical frontline, logging into meetings online from home, struggling to isolate in a 6-person shack, or starving on the side of the road, there is a big existential question as to what comes next. What will save us now? When our president puts on military fatigues and addresses our soldiers before they fight a war, should he rather be putting on scrubs and speaking to our doctors, nurses, hospital staff?
We are fighting a virus, it seems, at times without armour. Winning and losing are no longer part of this game, merely surviving is the prize all of us must seek. Yet, I have now seen and felt something bigger than us. The lockdown and global camaraderie is something I've never experienced, and feels like maybe this is exactly where we need to be. Working towards a new beginning. A new world. A humbled, and grateful human race. May our experience here expose what humanity sometimes struggles to foster for itself: an understanding that perhaps slowing it all down shouldn't be seen as the end of the world; rather, not doing so rushes us towards it.
"It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding." Markus Zusak