We are closing on a year since the coronavirus reached our shores. We are feeling battered and bruised and still somewhat confused and that’s just us as civilians. Today we have a guest post from a frontline worker and this is her perspective on how our every day heroes are coping.
According to my family and primary school friends, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor but I seriously don’t remember. Anyways in grade 11/ matric I remember I went to the local library and took out the A-Z of careers. Over some time I read through it trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. After considering a few options I decided to pursue a medical career because I could not imagine myself in anything else. Studying medicine was challenging, like a boot camp that just didn’t end. The euphoria only lasted till about 4th year, where we started doing clinical medicine. Which showed me the not so glamorous side which is long hours at the hospital. I’m sure every medical student reconsiders their life choices at this point. Yet my love for it still grew and eventually I discovered what I’m passionate about.
First experience with Covid-19
My experience started quite horrific to be blunt. Around March 2020 I realized that I work at an understaffed, under-resourced regional hospital (as an emergency officer) that was by far not ready to deal with a pandemic. Despite talks by the government of preparing hospitals and workers, we found ourselves with no PPE (personal protective equipment) and no plan/structure in place to deal with Covid-19 suspects. Add to that no training about the disease and possible available treatment. Not much communication from management concerning the fact that we were constantly running out of gloves, masks, sanitizer, dealing with water shortage, oxygen shortage, non-existent infection control even though this was just the beginning of the pandemic. I will be the first to admit it very scary to be put in such a situation where one is dealing with a new, unknown, contagious and somewhat life threatening disease. I mean, we’ve learnt of most diseases in the classroom already and hospitals are pretty prepared or able to prepare for such. I found myself working as a medical officer busy with my community service at a regional hospital; quite a junior doctor at that, now having to be a frontline doctor. Please note, this is from my point of view as a frontline doctor but the reality is there are also many other frontline professions involved, such as general workers, cleaners, security and other health disciplines.
A ray of hope
Things only got significantly better three to four months later. This really took a toll on the mental health of myself and my colleagues. Frustration, fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, burn out, feelings of hopelessness were all knocking at our doors. Personally, I started getting headaches just two hours before my shift every day, from fear and anxiety maybe? If there was one good thing my work place did, it was organizing psychological preparedness classes at the beginning of the pandemic. They were run by our psychiatry department and all staff could attend. So I decided to attend one early on, which equipped me on how to be aware of my emotions and my thoughts and how to redirect them towards a healthy way. For instance, I really didn’t like the set-up of our work place; our tearoom wasn’t welcoming or user friendly. I realized that was something I could change, I could help make our break times more rewarding. So I went ahead and set up a coffee/tea station with coffee and tea available for the staff. That really helped me feel proactive about my situation.
Healthy coping mechanisms
There are a couple of things that have been instrumental in keeping me sane. Firstly the psychological preparedness classes. Secondly I have support from my spouse at home and not forgetting my two puppies that keep me busy and not thinking about work. What also helps is talking things out, like specific things I experience at work with others. I have friends from church that lend an ear on a weekly basis. Every so often I touch base with a psychologist friend of mine. Lastly, we as the doctors and nurses took it upon ourselves to seek out the attention of the management and this set about the sequence of events that led to necessary changes.
What I want the public to know
So much comes to mind, somehow maybe even conflicting thoughts. However I do want people to know that the situation is real, this is everyone’s reality, and we can’t just wish it away nor have it explained away by some outlandish theory. People are dying, people are financially suffering, and others are also mentally suffering, we cannot forget that. Now, whatever the cause/ origin, we are learning more about the virus and it’s helping us doctors treat our patients better.
About the author ….
Mbali Mukembe ( Dr. Mahlangu) studied MBChB at University of Pretoria, did her internship at Steve Biko Academic Hospital and community service at Dora Nginza Regional hospital as an emergency officer. She is currently a medical officer pursuing her passion in anesthesia and public health. In her free time she enjoys being with family, playing with her two dogs and watching K-drama.
I would just like to express gratitude to Dr. Mbali for her time and letting us in behind the curtain. Thank you to all the front line workers who continue to risk their lives.