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Burnout and fatigue haunt Covid-19 front line healthcare workers

Dr Nontembiso Mhlana said her experience as a doctor in a Covid-19 ward has been challenging. Picture: Aneeqah Kamish

Dr Nontembiso Mhlana said her experience as a doctor in a Covid-19 ward has been challenging. Picture: Aneeqah Kamish

Published Jul 4, 2021


A TYGERBERG doctor has opened up about the emotional exhaustion of how she has faced more deaths in the past year than in her entire ten years as a doctor.

Dr Nontembiso Mhlana is among the front line workers bearing the brunt of Covid-19’s third wave while still dealing with prolonged stress and burnout of the first and second waves.

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Mhlana is a specialist physician in internal medicine at Tygerberg Hospital and has worked in the Covid-19 ward since the onset of the pandemic.

The doctor said the disease has left her with little to no down time. She explained that the admission of one Covid-19 patient was a lengthy process, and it happened at a rapid rate.

“Once admitted, we have to monitor and review patients frequently as their condition can change so quickly. They need more attention and more time,” she said.

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Mhlana said working in such a time had been emotionally exhausting for her.

“Especially during the second wave, we would see five people dying at once. It is overwhelming and scary and can cause lots of anxiety. We are not only worried about the patient but also our colleagues and ourselves.”

Mhlana sees a therapist privately every week to help deal with the emotional effects of the pandemic.

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Healthcare workers at Tygerberg Hospital are provided with group debriefing sessions where a psychiatrist and psychologist helps them process the high level of trauma they face.

A trauma ward at Groote Schuur Hospital. Doctors say they are burnt out. Picture: Tracey Adams/AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY(ANA)

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has embarked on a study to evaluate how healthcare workers have managed their physical, emotional and mental well-being during the pandemic.

The study has already begun, and the HSRC said it “aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the lived experiences, challenges and vulnerabilities of healthcare personnel and their families amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and describe the psychosocial and healthcare support services that are currently available for healthcare personnel”.

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The council said in a statement that this study was an important piece of research.

“In South Africa, hundreds of healthcare personnel have succumbed to the disease and as it becomes clear that the country has entered the third wave of the pandemic, at 2% of those being hospitalised are healthcare personnel… The study will conclude on 31 August 2021.”

Health-care workers taking the vaccine at the Mitchells Plain District Hospital. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Lynold Griffiths is a paramedic with over 30 years of experience and is currently an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) station manager at the Khayelitsha Hospital.

He said as paramedics they were also going through a tough time.

“We are talking to each other every day and checking in and sometimes the best thing to do is to exercise at the end of the day... the main coping mechanism is to do something different after work,” he said.

“We do a moment of silence and sometimes even just sing a hymn or a song at our morning parade, and that does help.

“If you see someone is down, it’s important to call them one side and have that chat and keep everyone motivated.”

A health-care worker at a temporary Covid-19 treatment facility. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane African news Agency (ANA)

Sister Lee-Ann Nesizwa October, from Brackengate Hospital of Hope, described her experience as a nurse in a Covid-19 ward as deeply traumatic.

“We have been exposed to a high death rate and have experienced intense suffering. Some of our colleagues have died, and the disease has awakened so many uncertainties for us,” she said.

October said during the first and second waves, they had to risk their own lives and neglect their families for the benefit of their patients.

“Even though we are tackling this third wave with experience from the first and second wave, our uncertainty and fears are surfacing again.

“There is a rapid increase in our intake of patients, and we need to be alert all the time. We are still working 12-hour shifts, sometimes without a break,” she said.

Dr Yenzi Ngema works in the orthopaedic department at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. She said being at the front line of the third wave had taken its toll on her too.

“We are just tired. Our training has been suspended and postponed and we have to focus on the emergency at hand, and it is frustrating because it does not seem as if there is an endpoint,” Ngema said.

She added that there were programmes and services available to healthcare workers to help them cope.

“Sometimes talking about how you are feeling is the first step, and then we support each other and try to even find humorous moments in our days, but it is hard.”