'If they die, they die alone,' says heartbroken Cape Town nurse

30 May 2020 - 07:00 By Tanya Farber
Magdalena Julies was the fifth Western Cape nurse to die of Covid-19. Those on the front line want the public to understand the mental and physical pressure that the pandemic is placing on them.
Magdalena Julies was the fifth Western Cape nurse to die of Covid-19. Those on the front line want the public to understand the mental and physical pressure that the pandemic is placing on them.
Image: Supplied

“I saw on social media someone had commented that nurses are dying because ‘they don’t use their PPE properly’. I just went and had a good cry. People have no idea what we’re going through.”

These are the words of June Bradbury, a nurse in Cape Town who is witnessing first-hand the “new normal” at hospitals as Covid-19 spreads in the province and country — while many still deny that this is a crisis situation.

Asking not to disclose the name of the hospital where she works as an emergency nurse, she said: “Nobody else knows what it’s like when it’s you and a patient in that little cubicle or ward together, and you know they’re going to die.”

To date, six front-line hospital workers have died in the Western Cape from Covid-19.

For health workers, the trauma of seeing patients die coupled with the fear of contracting the virus, are taking their toll on the mental health of those trying to keep the population safe.

This week, provincial health minister Nomafrench Mbombo said at a press conference: “It is understandable and not a surprise that front-line health care workers are experiencing anxiety. We need to realise also that the whole health system collapses when health workers can't cope.”

Bradbury also worries that the public doesn’t realise the lonely death of those who succumb to the virus.

The patient would not have seen a loved one since their admission to the hospital.

“We can’t allow anyone else in. You bring your loved one in and give the receptionist the patient’s details. Then you say goodbye to the patient and you don’t see them again. If you want to bring toiletries, you leave them at reception.

“People just don’t understand. You bring in your mother or father or granny from an old-age home, and they go off to the Covid ICU ward where they’re put on a ventilator. Apart from nursing staff, they’re on their own. If they die, they die alone,” said Bradbury.

She added: “There are special ways in which the body needs to be removed and cleaned and you don’t see the body. So it’s really very sad people are so ignorant. We see in the hospital over and over again privileged people who have never had to suffer or go without. They are the ones making the most noise and complaining.”

She says it will also come to the point where beds and ventilators are in short supply.

“The doctor will have to choose between a 59-year-old who was compliant” and stuck to the rules of trying not to spread the disease, and a “23-year-old who has been out jogging and not sticking to the guidelines”.

She has watched in amazement how members of the public complain about the discomfort of wearing a cloth mask for half an hour when exercising or shopping, when her colleagues in the Covid-19 ICU ward “spend 12 hours in full PPE when it is hot and uncomfortable” as the nation confronts the worst pandemic in 100 years.

In the emergency room, too, she and colleagues sweat in their gear as they try to resuscitate patients.

For cleaning staff too, this “new normal” is even more vigorous than what was required before the virus struck.

“If a patient is moved from the ‘resus’ room or one area to another in the hospital, everything is stripped (including the curtains) and bagged and cleaned. The person who is cleaning also wears PPE and needs to get that isolation room ready for the next person who comes in.”

Even if no more nurses succumb to Covid-19, there is going to be a shortage as infections climb in the province and around the country.

On Thursday, provincial head of health Dr Keith Cloete, said that an additional 1,600 beds were needed in the province for Covid-19 (despite the beefing up with 1,400 beds that had already happened) and that each of these beds would need to be staffed.

The department was looking to bring nurses from other provinces, he added.

Provincial public health specialist Prof Andrew Boulle said that hospital admissions had been at 812 in a single week, but were now at 1,400.

“If this projection continues, the whole system comes under major pressure,” he said.