Breaking Point

It was a cold day in Durban. Sixteen degrees Celsius is cold for us on the East Coast of sub-tropical Africa. 

I had made a trip through the suburbs to drop something off for my theatre scrub sister.  The roadblocks are manned by community commandos, most of who are my patients and it’s easy to pass through. 

On the way back to the hospital I passed a que of cars more than two kilometres long. They were on the road to the Galleria Mall or maybe just the filling station. There was an air of dejection and desperation hanging over the cars waiting. Ordinary South Africans waiting to get food or petrol. I was disheartened to see lone drivers trying to push into the que of orderly people.

I parked at the hospital. The doctors parking area was at about 30% full today. The last few days it has been at 10%. The faster cars don’t seem to be able to make it to the hospital.

I walked from the parkade toward the tunnel that goes under the medical centre to the hospital. I hate wearing only scrubs in winter. It is way too cold for sleeveless bravery. A striking young woman caught my eye as I laboured through messages on my phone. She was bald, well dressed and made up. Vibrant. No hair.

She was clutching a form and stopped me.

“Excuse me, is Ampath closed?”

Trying to wrestle my attention away from the little screen, I stopped to talk to her. “Yes, we didn’t have any lab service yesterday, and today we have one technician for the whole hospital. I am sorry” the famous South African refrain. “The lab is closed. Why?”

I glanced at the laboratory request form in her hand. In orthopaedics we keep it simple and don’t really ask for all the  tests after which  Elon Musk might name his children. This list was for things that scared me. Cancer markers.

“I need to have these tests before my chemotherapy tomorrow…”

I felt like crying and giving her a hug. Neither were an option. So I excused myself while I scrolled through my messages looking for something about laboratory closures and openings. In the end I called one of the doctors who knew how to work the system. In seconds my unknown patient took a photo of my screen and left to get her blood tests done in the nearby industrial area. 

I went into my office. It is a safe place that is more of an art gallery than a doctors room. That’s the way I like it. We have been closed to the public all week. I am not sure I like that. I had the tedious job of completing a report of a patient whose lawyer was suing the province for negligence. In this case there was no negligence. She just had bad luck. 

Instead of going home I went and did rounds in the hospital. Not the surgeon rounds where I check a patient’s limb  and movement. A round where I chatted to nurses and tried to understand their issues.

I ended up in the trauma unit. Luckily the first patient I saw had an undisplaced fracture of the wrist and I knew what to do. I showed a keen student how to apply a cast and explained the care to the patient, the father of a neurologist in another city.

Then they called me to see another patient. I am not an experienced general doctor. I decided soon in my training, after realising internal medicine was not for me, that I would concentrate my energies on the simple and straightforward subject related to bones. This lady was bleeding from her flank. I could see the bump on her tummy that meant she was pregnant. She was stable, fortunately. Her abdomen was soft and it seemed she and the five month old foetus had escaped major injury. I numbed the bullet wound with local anaesthetic to relieve her pain. The student put up a drip. I called the obstetrician and general surgeon. Their movements were hampered by riots. The patient was admitted to the maternity ward where the loving maternity nurses would care for her.

My day ended with humanising visits to friends to feed me and charge my emotional batteries.

I am very blessed to have such friends and to be associated with a medical team that cares so much. But we are all at breaking point. Remember that.

Baptism on Durban beach… praying for the rebirth of South Africa.

Superlatives

I could use superlatives to describe our nurses at Netcare Kingsway Hospital.

There are fancy words like  unprecedented, incredible, amazing, unbelievable, conscientious and self-sacrificing.

But I will not.

I will just tell you what they do:

Our nurses work twelve hour shifts. They arrive early and leave late. They wait in line to  sign in with a thumb print for work. Then they log in on their cell phones to be screened for Covid-19 symptoms and checked for fever. They queue up to sign in. Then they wait to be screened. 

From there they walk to their ward. There is not as much noise as before. It is quiet as they put their bag and food in their locker. Before they used to leave their phones in the locker. Now the phone is a vital tool to connect. Not to social media, but to hospital and doctor groups. Orders, stats and death notices fill the small screens.

They don PPE to start work and care for their patients. They wear a mask, visor, gown and gloves all day. It gets hot. Their throats become dry.  Tea and lunch breaks are short and sometimes missed because they are busy. They cannot sit with friends. The tea rooms only allow two nurses at a time. I see them walking to their cars to eat lunch. There is no life in how they spend the time which is meant to recharge their soul.

The wards are full. We can give each patient an oxygen mask or rebreather. Not everyone can get high flow oxygen because our oxygen supply system will fail. This even after we installed a huge tank and free flow piping that we hose down every hour to prevent the freezing of the pipes. I do not need to explain the cap we face if we need to escalate breathing support. There are a fixed number of ventilators with a waiting list.

As I write this, the words seem without aim.

I have chosen my words to reflect the staccato world of talking through masks and behind visors.

Yet somehow richer words appear. The intensity of the ICU’s is cloaked in an almost church like peace as these highly qualified nurses work around the clock to save lives. When I talk to them all I see are tired eyes above the mask line, yet there is a gentleness and concern that pervades their every action.

My theatre staff have lost all sense of stability. They have to work in wards, ICU, the emergency department, triage or screening. They also call the families to update them of the loved ones condition. My theatre staff have another duty: they care for those we have lost. They do this with great dignity.

This week I got some grass cutting helmet visors (I am holding two in the photo) for some of the theatre staff. We all know they are the most comfy and safe as well. They are bulky and ugly. One of the nurses put her visor on and walked as if on a catwalk. She was showing off her new visor as if it was a designer handbag.

As she walked she tilted her head to show the large blue helmet with clear plastic screen and said “fabulous!”.

Now that is a superlative I did not expect to hear.

Holding the grass cutting visors in a stainless steel hospital lift. See my phone in a plastic bag.

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