SARAH BUITENDACH: What it’s like being a ‘regular’ at a hospital in November 2021
Fear, panic, hope, relief, disbelief – and the spectre of the ‘inevitable’ fourth wave that looms large in compulsively sanitised hallways
For the past three weeks my dad has been in ICU at Life Flora Hospital in Joburg. Despite the miraculous work done by magnificent and kind doctors, nurses and support staff, these 21 days have been an exercise in pure anxiety.
Many of you will be familiar with the rollercoaster of emotions the loved ones of a very sick person experience. Fear, panic, hope, relief, disbelief – you can yo-yo through them in minutes. It is exhausting – and, as the world of municipal elections and rugby games continue outside of a new reality of pipes and machines, disorientating too.
You bond with the other families you encounter at the unit’s door, become an expert in technical medical terms, and in November 2021, thank the gods that your person isn’t sick during a Covid wave, so you can actually visit them.
Truly, it is impossible to shake the spectre of the coronavirus if you are a “regular” at a hospital right now. Infection numbers might be low, and elsewhere South Africans are living like the pandemic is over, but inside those compulsively sanitised walls you’re always aware of the risk.
It’s frustrating that only one family member can see my dad three times a week, but weigh that up against keeping him, with compromised health (and everyone else who is sick) safe, and I can live with it. Plus, you can’t help but think of the countless humans who lay in hospital beds terrified and alone during any of the Covid waves, when no visitors were allowed at all, so you take the small wins where you can.
But it’s the staff I feel most for. They have told me of the terror and stress of working through the first wave. Remember, we knew so little back then. “You held your breath when a Covid patient coughed,” said one nurse. With vaccinations and experience, you can see that the teams are calmer, but now doctors are working madly to catch up on full slates of serious operations between waves.
When we are all safe on holiday and working via Zoom in December or January or whenever the next Covid onslaught hits, it’s these professionals who are going to feel it the worst. They’re the ones who will be facing jammed wards, intubating the sick and holding up phones so patients can talk to petrified families.
A doctor friend who’s at the coalface of Covid at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital speaks of a fourth wave with visceral dread. Unsurprising, when you consider she’s now totally wise to the levels of stress and trauma that come with a viral tsunami, never mind the resources that must be deployed to focus on Covid patients, so people with other serious illnesses get sidelined.
And mostly this horror show is avoidable. Just read Discovery Health’s stats (based on the 2.5-million doses its medical aid members have received) to remind yourself of exactly how well vaccinations are working. It has found that the Pfizer vaccine is 92% effective in protecting against Covid admission risk 14 days after the second dose. And 94% effective against Covid mortality risk 14 days after the second dose.
If more South Africans were vaccinated, fewer people would be in hospital, and the pressure would be off our health-care workers as we head into what health minister Joe Phaahla last week described as the “inevitable” fourth wave.
It wouldn’t have been inevitable if more South Africans were already vaccinated, but only 13-million of us are fully jabbed, so we’re in for it. Again.
Once more those who’ll suffer terribly will include everyone from waiters whose livelihoods will be threatened because people won’t be eating in restaurants to varsity students forced to muddle through difficult degrees entirely online.
The unvaccinated aren’t thinking of any of them. And they’re certainly not thinking of the hospital staff who’ll bear the full brunt of their selfishness and stupidity in the coming weeks – and try their best to save their lives.
Thank you to all our health-care workers for the brave, hard work you’ve done over the past 18 months – and godspeed for the next surge.
Buitendach is a contributing editor to the FM
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