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'This is crazy - it's like a machine': nurses on the Covid-19 front line in the Western Cape

24 June 2020 - 17:38 By Sipokazi Fokazi
Nurses Verna Collins and Judith Parenzee, who work at Groote Schuur Hospital's Covid-19 intensive care unit, say they feel overwhelmed.
Nurses Verna Collins and Judith Parenzee, who work at Groote Schuur Hospital's Covid-19 intensive care unit, say they feel overwhelmed.
Image: Facebook

“This place steals from you. We are emotionally drained. I'm emotionally drained from yesterday and now I have to face today.”

This is what two Western Cape nurses on the Covid-19 front line wrote on social media on Wednesday, expressing their frustration and helplessness at having to deal with patients laid low by the respiratory illness.

The Western Cape remains the epicentre of Covid-19 in SA with at least 14,837 active cases, 1,565 deaths and 54,835 cases in total since the first two were confirmed on March 10.

Writing on the Heroes of Groote Schuur Facebook page, Verna Collins and Judith Parenzee - who work in the C27 Respiratory ICU, which is now used as a Covid-19 ICU - said while they are used to caring for sickly patients, the heartbreaking difference with Covid-19 victims was their lack of family contact.

In their post, which drew hundreds of supportive comments, the duo also voiced their frustration at having to work in an overburdened ward with skeleton staff.

“The thing that I can't handle the most is the families not being involved with the patients, especially if they are at their end. How do you communicate that?” they said.

“We used to have six beds in here. Now we're sitting with 18 beds in the unit that I'm currently working in. We've only had one patient that's actually left, the turnover is so bad. We've been admitting constantly - it just goes on and on and on.”

The nurses said they were used to having a rapport with patients' families.

“Now that part is totally taken away because you don't have any connection with the family. It's only a phone and then you don't know who you're talking to on the other side.

“So now what they do, the families, is they video call. If the patient’s doing well, then it's OK then at least they can see progress. If they’re dying, how do you video call the family? The family wants to see their relative.

“You can tell them the patient is ventilated, the patient is sedated, but to physically get a picture and see all the tubes - they don't even recognise the person that's lying there. This is the worst part, for me.”

The workload in the ward not only made it impossible for nurses to connect with patients, but they hardly have any time off to be with their own families due to the added pressure.

While they used to work about four days a week, the shortage of staff has forced the hospital to ask them to work “on our off-days as well”.

“It's like a machine, you work from bed to bed to bed, then you go back to the beginning, so the norm that we knew as nurses and the contact we had with patients is no longer there because you won't get through the day's work, it's crazy,” said the nurses.

“None of the patients can communicate because they're all paralysed, they're all sedated. We paralyse and sedate the patients with medication because we need to protect their lungs.”

“We're all parents, we all have families we need to take care of. And you still go home with whatever's happening here.

“This morning I asked the doctor, ‘Is there ever going to be a time when you guys decide what is the criteria for patients to come to ICU, and who's going to make that decision?' He said, 'All we can do is try.'”

Responding to the nurses on social media, Leoné Jansen van Rensburg, a nursing manager at an another hospital, told them all nurses were in the same boat.

“Hang in there, you are stronger than you think. That’s why the Lord made you a nurse,” she said.

“In the hospital where I am the matron, we are not there yet, but it's slowly creeping closer. My heart breaks if I look at the staff really trying their very best for patients. I also try to keep feet out of hospital, but still have to keep exactly that in mind. Families need to be with their dying relatives. I will try and keep it up as long as possible.”

Alice de Klerk expressed support for medical staff. “I know it must be very frustrating, but I pray daily that God must carry you through. Then you find people who do not appreciate all your sacrifices for your patients. But that’s love and dedication for your profession,” she wrote.

Marlene Rogers thanked the nurses for the sacrifice they had made “of giving up your special time with your families to look after and care for ours”.

“The two of you will be richly blessed for your sacrifice, your dedication and your loving care to our families,” she told them.

“This too shall pass.”