Burials: We can’t keep up!

Those were the headlines in one of the Sunday papers.

He was around fifty years old and with his wife. They stood in front of me in the supermarket. He was in shorts and a light blue t-shirt, wearing beach flip-flops. Standard casual wear for the holiday beach town where I work at Netcare Kingsway Hospital in Amanzimtoti, on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast of South Africa.

I could see him reading the headlines. Then he shook his head and muttered something to his wife.

“News” was all I heard. It was accusatory, devoid of any connection to the surge in Covid-19 infections we are experiencing in this province. 

I was not in my surgical scrubs. I too wore shorts and a t-shirt, although not as smart as his. Instead of flip flops I wore my Crocs. Every day at the hospital I wear closed restaurant Crocs that I wash every day with my scrubs. It was good to be in my beach and bush Crocs.

“It’s true, you know” I said. “ I can take you to Kingsway Hospital down the road and show you the people waiting outside.” I knew they were there,  sucking on oxygen from  battered black cylinders. They would have been triaged by a team of nurses, vital signs recorded and placed on the oxygen as they waited for a cubicle in our emergency department. A colored sticker on their shirt or blouse would identify them: BLUE for family members, YELLOW for non-Covid medical problems ( the minority) and RED for COVID-19 patients.

“I don’t believe it. I don’t know anyone who has it. I don’t know anyone who has died from it. I know hundreds of teachers, and not one has it. But I do know people who have been murdered in the last year.” He was calm and spoke his truth.

His words hurt me.

I chose not to argue. He would not recognize me when he came to the back of the emergency department. All he would see is my eyes above the mask and behind the visor. I would be unable to help him. Not because he did not believe that Covid-19 was a real problem. I would not be able to help him because there would be twenty other patients waiting for a hospital bed. Maybe he would get one on the other side of the city, or even in another town. I would not wish ill on him. But he should see the eyes of those pleading for care and attention. He should see their eyes when the person lying on a stretcher next to them dies. He should see all the bodies waiting in the holding area.

They are waiting for the undertakers who can’t keep up with the burials.

The nurses at my hospital can’t keep up either. I cannot keep up with how many get sick with Covid.

One of the emergency doctors steeled himself before a shift. “I can’t do this anymore.”

He was tired of seeing patients and not having beds for them. He was tired of seeing people die. He was tired because two of his colleagues were sick with Covid and he had to carry the extra shifts.

Still he went out to face the death and destruction that this disease forces on us.

The man in front of me at the supermarket que would not believe any of this.

The amazing thing is he would still be treated at my hospital like anyone else if he needed help. He would be treated by nurses and doctors who just can’t keep up. 

He may end up with a RED sticker on his blue t-shirt…

Begrafnisse: Ons kan nie voorbly – Afrikaaans for Buritals: we cannot keep up

Circles of Light

We had survived the first wave of Covid. The Covid admissions at my hospital were down and we had resumed elective surgery. Things were running as smoothly as they could in the new normal.

I washed alone in the darker scrub room. I always use this scrub time to focus on the case at hand. Surgery forces one to be very mindful, unlike other high pressure jobs where you may have to multi-task. In surgery all you have to do is focus on the next case.  

I looked through to my operating theatre, the room lights bright with the scrub sister positioning the brighter operating lights for me to make my incision. Over the decades these were the third ,and by far the best, set of lights to work with, I thought to myself. Was I thinking more today, or was I just more aware?

Surgery is a privileged profession, one which captivates and entrances. It is also a demanding discipline where failure stabs at your heart with no forgiveness.  But this morning I was captivated by the lights. For the first time as a surgeon I realised the operating room light is a representation of the primeval force of fire that bound humanity by giving light in the darkness. This light was the result of our forebears discovery of fire. Nothing less. 

Back to scrubbing. Palm to back of hand. Left then right. Then each thumb. Forearms then rinse. I always worry about the waste of water. I should change to a dry scrub. But I find the noise and sensation of running water soothing.

I glanced into my theatre. My eyes focussed and stayed there.

The light shone in a circle of circles, each emanating like a ripple in a pond from a stone thrown by some child. 

It is my twenty third year of operating here. I have survived a few medical mishaps of my own: a few kidney stones, a cardiac stent, amoebic colitis, surgery for arthritis to my thumb and now I think I have COVID.

It was as if I could see the virus now. There were halos I had not noticed before. Maybe it was from all the scratches of cleaning my visor. Last week I worked with a nurse in that same theatre for two days and they tested positive for COVID after that. 

It was five and seven days since my exposure. As a health care professional I could continue to work until I had symptoms. 

But the light does not shine on premonitions.

The next day I tested positive.

H.O.P.E.

Even as the postcards started arriving the signs of the second surge were present. The statistics are anywhere to be found but a retired colleague of my brother has done his own programming and has a useful site to look at the numbers if you need to: https://www.covibes.org

Back to the postcards. They are being collected in a box held at reception at Netcare Kingsway Hospital. 

I have collected twice and will check again next week. I feel like an old fashioned village postman.  It tugs at the memory of the film Il Postino, a beautiful film about how words can change lives.

Each time I took the pile of postcards to my office and left them in the corner of my empty desk. When my work day was over and I could focus, I sat alone and read each one. I cried easily at the intensity of emotions expressed about  how events had affected staff at the hospital. 

After each reading I went to the front desk where my receptionist Anina is protected behind Perspex barriers and shook my head in disbelief as I spoke  of the trauma. Anina scanned each one in so that the card was digitized, and from those files I was able to make the first collage that makes up the picture that accompanies this article.

One postcard ended simply: 

“No words.

Only emotions.”

There are so many emotions that we have all experienced to a greater or lesser degree, from closer or further than others. I could identify with all of them, from the anger to the zeitgeist of social distancing and lockdown of our new era.

The sense of loss is profound. Loss of family members and friends stab into your heart. The loss the nurses felt as they were the only ones to guide patients into the next world hurts so much that tears flow. 

There is anger. There is a sense of growth and achievement. There is an acknowledgement of lessons learnt. My writers have defined what is truly important to them. 

Despair makes an appearance but is won over by hope.

So why H.O.P.E.?

Hold On Pandemics End.

Keep hope alive by wearing your mask and social distancing. Think very carefully about your festive season travels if you really have to. Remember it’s as much about not contracting the virus as much as it is about not infecting someone else.

A Postcard to Covid

A Postcard to Covid

One thing has worried me during Covid-19 and initially no one understood.

To survive and heal after this pandemic we need to remember the story  of what happened. 

Our modern instant access to news feeds and  intrusive social media have overloaded us with statistics and disease progression.  In a few years’ time if we look back and do an internet search we will have access to all the details of what happened. We will be able to recount the spread and the death rates, the financial fallout and effect of the recession. The debate on wearing a mask will hopefully have been silenced. There will be articles on the development of a vaccine. Science and medicine and economics will dominate the records.

But the story of how we felt, how it affected us, the way our minds took a beating, all those stories will be lost in the millions of pages of data.

That is unless you send a postcard to Covid and let the virus know how it has affected you and how you feel.

I am sure that writing a postcard uses another part of your brain. It forces you to find a spot  to place the card on a table and pick up a pen. You may not put the tip of the pen in your mouth for inspiration because you are wearing a mask, but the ideas will come. There are different pathways in the brain that engage more cells than when you pick up your mobile phone to send a message. Trust me, picking up a pen in itself can be healing.

Yes our stories during the pandemic have the power to help us heal. 

We have all been traumatized. If I look at our little hospital that was closed by the Department of Heath early on in the pandemic because we had an outbreak, I knew already then that there would be suffering. I do not want to minimize the suffering that anyone has gone through, but our nurses are the ones who put their lives on the line. They are the ones who held the hands as patient after patient died from lack of oxygen on their watch. They are the ones who stood in for the family who could not visit. They are the ones who escorted the dying to the other side. They have a sad story to tell.

The idea of a postcard came to me in the last few weeks while I was studying a course hosted by the University of Cape Town on Medicine and the Humanities by Associate Professor Susan Levine and Professor Steve Reid. I have also been attending a  course hosted by Laurel Braitman of the Department of Narrative Medicine at Stanford University. It is Laurel’s inspiration ( and very likely one of her prompts) that made me realise that we had to find a way to tell our stories through this pandemic.

So pick up a postcard and tell us what Covid has made you feel. If you need to talk about it tick the box and we will get back to you.

I know the strength of the human spirit will prevail, and I look forward to sharing your inspirational stories.

The Ocean

I wrote this poem a few months ago at the end of summer…..


As the world

Unfolds and bursts

Where seams

Never existed

I crawl to the ocean

In the darkness

Leaving it all behind

Summer does not

Seem to want an end

If only other things

Would end as well

Clear skies echo

The Ocean quiet

Our windless Halcyon


I lie in bed

Exhausted yet

Today I contributed

My life’s tapestry

Is richer in this dark hour

As I watch sea and sky

A Note for Future Generations

Covid-19 is still with us. The South African curve is not flattening, and the number of new cases and deaths continues to rise.

I am seeing my first Covid-19 positive patient at Netcare Kingsway Hospital.  He is fortunately well. Unfortunately the surgery for his broken arm will be delayed for two weeks. I am not prepared to risk spreading the New Corona Virus in my theatre if it can be avoided. This said, if we needed to operate my team would do it safely.

I have consulted and seen other patients with Covid-19 before our hospital was closed and then reopened last month. But they had been admitted under other physicians, and were not strictly my responsibility. Although ownership may be a better word. We bear great responsibility as the doctors of these patients.

I was prompted to write this piece by Laurel Braitman, a professor and the Director of Writing and Storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine at Stanford University. She hosted an emotional online writing workshop this weekend. The prompt was to write something for a  time capsule that would be opened by future generations. 

Back to my patient:

He was the last patient I saw on my ward round. 

First I see green patients, then yellow patients, and finally the red patients. Negative swabs, awaiting swab results and positive swabs respectively. 

Besides being red my patient is also black,  and I am white. Yes I notice that. Especially after all the other colors in my hospital. We are both born in the same country, but we come from different cultures.  We are the Rainbow Nation. Diverse and rich in color and ethnicity.

Our categorization of the disease in South Africa is also divided into race, as it has become all over the world. Black and white. I say this with great respect as America burns with human rights protest.

To save on PPE (personal protective equipment) I took him his breakfast. This meant a nurse would not have to don a special N95 mask, visor, gown, apron, hood, booties and gloves. No more pleasing hostess serving patient’s food on a tray with plates and cutlery in the hospital. Just a polystyrene container with food heated in the microwave. Delivered by an already tired doctor.

South Africa has always had constraints, and we all live in fear of not having enough PPE. So being able to serve the patient his food was my way of saving PPE for the tsunami we are expecting. It also allowed me to connect with him. I had to explain the delay in surgery. I reassured him that it was not going to jeopardize the ultimate result and clinical outcome of his injury. We also spoke about his work. His family. And Covid-19. We are all facing the same storm, yet each of us is in a different boat. 

Then my ward round was over. I spent thirty minutes with the nursing team going over the donning and doffing processes to be sure they were safe. Then I changed in the large change room the hospital has created for staff dealing with Covid-19 patients. I changed from hospital scrubs back into the new scrubs I wear to work every day. 

At home, after a  shower, I changed out of those scrubs into shorts and a t-shirt, and started my sanitized day.

Thank you to Laurel Braitman for the inspiration.

Durban beach baptism

A New Sense of Responsibility

Surgery is a privileged profession in so many ways. But under the cloud of Covid-19 I discovered a new profound privilege.

I had to operate on a 16 year old girl. She had injured her knee before lockdown and we had planned a knee ligament reconstruction. She was due to come into Kingsway Hospital with her mom and be treated with care and attention in our orthopedic ward.

We had to delay surgery because of lockdown. Then the hospital closed and re-opened, and at last we were able to schedule surgery for this past Saturday.

Surgery is not about the incision. It is about the healing: people entrust their bodies to the surgeon to remove, repair or relieve. There are moments on the path that the surgeon and patient walk that stand out. There is the introduction, understanding who they are and what they want to become. Assessing them clinically and then interpreting the investigations. Discussing options and guiding them to what you believe is the correct choice. Then the surgeon has to engage about the details and obtain consent. The capacity to make choices about your body, even as a child, is enshrined in our constitution, so it is good to engage with minors although their guardians have to sign the consent.

I had an new responsibility on Saturday. In the consultation we had decided that her mother would not come into the hospital with my patient. It would be an additional cost for her mother to be tested for Covid-19, and there was also the small risk of possible exposure. 

It felt awkward at the time to exclude her mother from her hospital admission. She would be in hospital for a little over 24 hours. Even so, I had never done this before. 

That meant my patient was taken to the front entrance of my hospital by her mother. There she would be left to enter alone with a clerk showing her the way to the ward. 

This whole thing had been preying on my mind for days. 

I saw her pre-operatively in the ward. She was alone in a normally occupied three bed ward. As  healers we have had touch taken away as part of our skillset  by this virus. Our faces are guarded by plastic visors and hidden by masks. Intonation and smiles are lost, and breathing and speech is difficult. Communication fails even though the need to care is heightened.

Over the years I have had children with injuries whose parents have given telephonic consent for emergency procedures to be performed. So seeing a teenager alone in bed was not something unusual. Yet the knowledge that her mother would not be allowed in as we had decided not to have her tested for Covid-19 meant that my patient was alone because of new policies and requirements to contain the possible spread of the disease.

I felt a sense of loss in that some of the humanity of my profession was gone. When she was wheeled into my operating theatre I realized I was entirely responsible for her. She was in my care in a manner beyond my commitment to my patients before this pandemic.

It was a new sense of responsibility. It was almost as if she was my child for that moment.

Antarctica is the only continent free of Covid-19.

So Now Your Hospital is Open…

The seven days that Netcare Kingsway Hospital was closed completely became a long week. 

There were moments of self-doubt. Finding calm in the moments that made up the closure of our community hospital was difficult.

I was paralyzed during the week my hospital was closed. I limited my news intake, and as I don’t use social media, I was spared the barrage of funny videos, false news and frustrated outbursts that we all experience under lockdown. My paralysis left me unable to read documents that were important to the functioning of a hospital, and further, the functioning of an orthopedic surgeon in a hospital. No hospital, no function: paralysis.

It was late Friday night that I heard that we were allowed to open.  The weekend would be taken up by dusting off everything and ensuring that all the things that are vital to a hospitals functioning were working. This meant checking things like oxygen, air, vacuum (for suction) and back-up generators were all working. 

Then we had to meet to train. We had to appoint new key players in new departments that make up the new normal of working in a hospital during the Covid-19 pandemic.

So after a week of mental paralysis how do you focus when you seem to be starting in the beginning again?

My mind races and there are many answers to the many questions. The answers that ground me are not technical. They are the emotions that will enrich us: empathy, gratitude and answering the question why for this period.

Firstly we  need to have empathy, as each one if us has been to dark places in the last month. No one knows exactly what path anyone else has tread, but caring for each other is important. We need to be kind-hearted, concerned and considerate.

Secondly, and equally important, we need to be grateful for everything we have and everything that has happened to us. We need to be grateful we had time to slow down and recalibrate. We are now all more grateful to have a place of work. More than that we are grateful that the public trust us to take care of them in our place of work.

Lastly, we need to answer the why of what has , is and will need to be done. We can easily answer the what and how, but why will reveal the foundation of our plans and protocols so that the team can incorporate them as part of their fibre. United in understanding we will achieve much more than just with protocols and procedures. 

An extended period of closure for any business can be devastating. For a hospital, closure speaks to a further loss. The feeling of failure settles easily on your shoulders if you don’t stand tall. Stand on your foundations of empathy and gratitude, and answer why it happened. 

Then what we do in the new normal will be greater than we would have done before.

What Does “Closing Your Hospital” Mean?

Toward the end of last year I was reading an article on disruption from Singularity University. The writer challenged businesses to think how they would respond if their customer base was suddenly lost. The challenge seemed to be based on climate change extremes and technological advances. It was a good article,  and I thought about it.

My hospital, Netcare Kingsway, is set in the lush coastal bush of a tall dune on the South Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal. I thought that even with a significant rise in sea level we would not be affected. The dune is at least seventy metres above current sea level. 

So what could else cause me to lose my patients? The answer is clear four months into the new year: the economic and political chaos that has followed the Covid-19 pandemic. 

I have seen fewer patients during lockdown than the fingers on my surgeon hands. For one week in April, the Medical Centre (a building adjacent to the hospital housing over fifty doctors) in which I work was closed. It underwent a deep clean by professional cleaners brought in by our hospital management. This despite there not having been a patient or doctor or receptionist who works in the Medical Centre testing positive for Covid-19.

Since the deep clean a handful of doctors returned to consulting in the Medical Centre during the last week of lockdown. They were seeing a fraction of the number of patients they normally see. Seeing these patients during the pandemic is difficult with protocols in place to enforce social distancing, wearing of masks and visors as well as increased hand hygiene for all. With the adjoining hospital still closed we cannot use the laboratory or X-rays department to help us make diagnoses. Worse still, we cannot admit our patients for treatment, be it medical or surgical

The patients we have cared for feel that we, the doctors, have abandoned them. I have cared for over twenty three thousand individuals and families during  the two decades I have worked at Kingsway.

My last operation was on Easter Monday, over three weeks ago. Shortly after that the hospital was closed to contain a Covid-19 outbreak. My patient was a ninety-two-year-old lady who shattered her thigh bone. The theatre staff and I were in full PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect her and us from Covid-19. She was discharged from Kingsway last week. Her thigh bone was fixed and she did not get infected with the New Corona virus in hospital.

I am pleased lockdown has been lifted in phases. I am not sure if I will be able to send her flowers for her ninety-third birthday next week.

I believe that Netcare as a group has been proactive with policy and protocol before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. Kingsway Hospital management has upped their game: they spent on more PPE, created more negative pressure ventilation cubicles, paid staff even though they are not working, converted a day ward of twelve beds into a Covid changeroom for staff, allocated only one patient to a cubicle even in three or four bed wards. This management team ran the hospital efficiently before Covid-19. Now they are risk managers as well, dealing with unimaginable crisis after crisis that has become the hallmark of this pandemic.

We have ongoing cleaning of the hospital including with an Ultraviolet Robot since we were closed to new admissions. We have emptied the hospital of all patients and closed the Medical Centre again from the end of April and have repeated the deep clean. We have trained staff and doctors in Covid-19 protocols. We have taken a team that has always cared and been cautious, and have made them better. 

All of us are dealing with all the unknowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. For us at Kingsway Hospital an additional unknown is when our hospital will be re-opened. We have lost a great part of what defines us as doctors.

Kingsway Hospital’s front door is closed.

The Simple Truth About Nurses

Dear Nurses

In another world I would have been an engineer sitting behind a computer solving other management problems.

But thanks to an inspirational ICU nurse I changed from engineering to medicine.

Now in this world, as a doctor, I am a humble part of the team at Kingsway Hospital that is managing the Covid-19 threat.

We are all, the public and health care workers, faced with the stress of the effect of the pandemic. There are economic fears of retrenchment and real money issues. Then there is the psychological stress of losing our right to move as we please, and with whom we please. 

Covid-19 is a disease whose spread we cannot control. Even worse, some  patients who get a severe infection cannot be cured, and will die in our care. I ask the public to think about the precautions we have to take to reduce the spread of the virus in our hospitals. We have to be vigilant: anyone can spread it in the asymptomatic carrier stage. We screen endlessly. We wash our hands so often our skin cracks. We live in masks, and as the risk increases we spend the day and night in uncomfortable protective gear. I challenge any member of the public to watch a video on the donning and doffing of our PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Some of this process is not entirely new to people exposed to the operating environment. But I can tell you, as a surgeon, the new processes are not easy for me, and are much more demanding and tiring.

The nurses have been forced to learn so much that is new. This is not like dealing with a superbug in the sense of the word before Covid-19. Superbugs like MRSA and CRE remain a challenge for all hospitals. The management of those is difficult, and we have extended and increased our systems of safety and control for the Corona Virus at least a hundred fold. 

Some of our nurses have been in isolation, and fewer have actually been ill with the virus. Thank you to them for taking time out of your life to keep us safe. Thank you for accepting sometimes blunt orders from your hospital. I understand the trauma you have been exposed to. 

Some of nurses have temporarily lost the job they were so good at. I think especially of the theater staff, where no operations have been undertaken in over ten days. I know you want to contribute. The only way we can contribute is to train even more to deal with this threat.

Other nurses with great clinical skill have been put on point duty to man sieve and screening areas for 12 hours at a stretch, exposed to the elements. Durban is not such a mild place if you are outdoors all day. Thank you for being so patient with the public that still come in needing our hospital.

We all have to pay so much more attention to detail. The equivalent performance by a sportsman or woman would be a hole in one or an ace with every shot, or a goal with every penalty shot in soccer. There is no one that can do that. Let’s not beat ourselves up about failures from which we can learn and do better the next time.

I know we all use Facebook to stay in touch with each other. A lot of good comes out of being in touch with people far and wide, and being able to share your life with them. 

What’s happening with the negativity toward nurses by some members of the public on Facebook is just not right. But Facebook gives strength to the weak, and should never be the judge of the calling you all hold dear to your heart.

What is happening in our community with nurses being ostracized in public and common areas speaks to the lack of understanding of what we face with this pandemic.

Those people, like us, need to learn to manage their stress and ask for help. There is no need take it out on the nurses who will care for them when they are sick.

Our nurses are the superheroes of our new world. Take some time to acknowledge them. 

They will be the ones looking after your loved ones in hospital.

For those patients that die in our care the nurses are the closest they will have to family. They will be with them when their family members who want to be close, cannot. Many of the nurses will feel the pain of their passing as keenly as family, with the added weight that they may feel they failed. They have not failed.

The disease is the killer. Not the nurses. That’s the simple truth about nurses.

Winner of the 2014 MPS/ SAMA Photographic competition