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Anaesthetist grateful for sacrifices South Africans have made during the lockdown

By sheree bega Time of article published Jun 30, 2020

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An Eastern Cape-based anaesthetist says he is thankful for the sacrifices that South Africans have made in the lockdown as it has given his hospital sufficient time to prepare for Covid-19 patients.

"We're pretty much at capacity," said Peter Gerber*, who works in  a major hospital, which cannot be named, on the ICU and intubation team. "We knew it was coming and I'm just grateful for the sacrifice that the greater country did with the lockdown because it really afforded healthcare services to ramp up. In our area, we were able to build a whole new ICU, train a lot of staff, get our personal protective equipment (PPE) stock ready, put in teams and strategies and it's paying off now. We knew this was going to be a challenge and I think all territories are experiencing these challenges now."

At the coalface of Covid-19, his strategy is to "plan for the best and expect the worst. The one thing we have learnt is that it's very difficult to predict the future. We can probably only look a couple of days, or a week, in the future, knowing what's coming and where we are on all the fancy graphs and data. It's difficult to say is it going to get worse or is it going to get better."

For himself and his colleagues, which include a team of anaesthetists and specialist physicians, who form the bulk of the ICU services treating Covid-19 patients, it's the emotional investment that may have been underestimated.

"The long hours, hard hours, tough decisions, I think that takes a bigger toll on your health care services. They call it a moral injury. I'm by no means trying to downplay what the general population is going through, I'm just saying that we're all vulnerable in terms of exposure to the human side ... The emotional cost is quite high and especially what it exposes is our vulnerability in terms of the number of healthcare workers in the country. That is a serious concern we need to address after this." 

He and his family have just recovered from Covid-19, which was fairly mild. "To me, it feels as if there's a bit of pressure off me. You have less fear and you're able to really focus on what you do. And obviously there's now a kind of shared vulnerability between you and the patient because you know what they've just gone through. You're able to actually share some experiences," he says. 

"We had this discussion at home and my family all agreed that we take this risk together, that there is no one to blame." He doesn't feel his days blurring into one. "One of the physicians actually put it well and said 'I can only do what's in front of me. You work from one patient to another and when you're with that patient, you're absolutely focused on that patient. You don't worry about the numbers in the casualty, what's waiting to be done."

Gerber has been in the healthcare sector for 30 years. "I'm quite surprised by the amount of teamwork that was put in by all the guys.  "We often work in silos but the way everyone stepped up, the plastic surgeons and the dermatologists who are definitely outside of their comfort zones,  as I would be in their areas, they've all just put their hands and said what we can do?

"I think the healthcare fraternity as a whole has felt like this is the time they can step up to the plate, realising that despite politics and what people may say, people still have the right motives to do medicine."

* Not his real name.

‘Through correct precautions we can limit risk’

Covid-19 took over Karmelle van Rensburg’s home through the George Visor initiative, which saw residents produce and donate 1700 face visors for health-care workers.

“Each evening after work we would put these together for distribution the following day,” says Van Rensburg, an anaesthetist.

The Southern Cape, she says, is still running 50% normal and is “not hard hit by Covid-19 yet, they are expecting our peak in two weeks”.

“I’m on the Covid ICU team once our internal physicians can no longer cope, where I will be working 24-hour shifts every four days.”

Each day, health-care workers need to sign into work through an app to be allowed access to the hospital.

“As a locum anaesthetist, I stand in for my colleagues when they are booked off due to Covid or when they need a break due to exhaustion. If one is not busy in theatre, we were busy setting up local guidelines, protocols, preparing the hospital or watching webinars and reading articles about Covid-19. I do believe we are all fearful of contracting Covid-19, however, through the correct precautions we can limit the risk.” \

The Saturday Star

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