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I'm so busy I forgot to buy food for home, says Tembisa Hospital doctor

Hospital had only just recovered from a fatal klebsiella outbreak, only to be hit hard by the coronavirus

14 August 2020 - 06:00 By Kgaugelo Masweneng and Shonisani Tshikalange
Nurses at Tembisa Hospital, where currently 33 Covid patients are admitted. The ward is called the "dirty area".
Nurses at Tembisa Hospital, where currently 33 Covid patients are admitted. The ward is called the "dirty area".
Image: Emile Bosch / TimesLIVE

For Dr Portia Ngwata, caring for Covid-19 patients means being so preoccupied that you forget to buy food for your two-year-old.

Ngwata is a gastroenterologist and head of clinical medicine at Tembisa Hospital in Ekurhuleni - and she is unbelievably busy.

Now one of three designated Covid-19 disease control hospitals in Gauteng, Tembisa is also no stranger to controversy. This, Ngwata said, puts a toll on staff and adds a significant amount of pressure.

“I’m thinking right now that my two-year-old doesn’t have food. When I left he only had two bottles - that’s how you neglect your family," the doctor said in an interview with TimesLIVE this week.

“I come here at around 6am or 7am and I leave late. You spend the day without having tea or lunch breaks. Sometimes I go without eating. Yesterday I almost collapsed because I didn’t eat for two days, so I had to force myself to eat.

“It’s painful. Every day has its own pain,” sobbed the mother of three.

TimesLIVE visited the hospital, which services an estimated population of 2.4 million, and has had an overwhelming influx of patients in the past weeks, sparking complaints about bed shortages.

As of Wednesday, the hospital is in the care of 33 Covid-19 patients, 81% of which are between the age of 51 and 80.

I am doing this because I want to save people. When it’s all over I would have conquered it, but I will be finished.
Dr Portia Ngwata

“After this, I don’t think any doctor still wants to be a doctor, including me. I am doing this because I want to save people. When it’s all over I would have conquered it, but I will be finished. I would need a brain wash, to be taken somewhere else,” said Ngwata.

“We’re losing our colleagues. We have more than 40 doctors who have died in SA, some of them we know personally - and we have to go back to work and see Covid.”

The doctor said she loathed how unpredictable the disease is. “Covid patients don’t give you an opportunity to save them. They could be walking now and dead in the next moment,” she said.

“You always ask yourself [as a doctor] what you could have done better.”

The demand for services from the community is higher than the available infrastructure, she said.

The 43-year-old says she was always anxious about her personal hygiene when it comes to her children.

Speaking of her daily routine when she gets home, the doctor said: “I make sure that I remove all my clothes in the garage. The kids know that they cannot go there. I go in [the house] and take a thorough bath.

“Sometimes you find them excited, running to you, so you have to duck and dodge them. Sometimes they want to tell you something but you have to neglect that until you are safe.

“Now we are behind payments of things, my personal life is going to kick me after this. I've bumped my car for the first time and I don’t even have time to repair it or make a claim.”

She said she was grateful to her husband, who took care of her emotional wellbeing.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do this alone. I wouldn’t have done it alone. I do ongoing counselling with my children. I can’t keep up with them. Our families are suffering.”

'You have to be conscious'

With the cleanliness of the hospital as important as the medical interventions themselves, the janitors have embraced the challenge.

Nonhlanhla Lusenga, who cleans the Covid-19 ward, was struck by fear when she was deployed to work there.

“When I had to enter the room it was very scary. I had to get used to going inside and cleaning. Every day we pray. When you go inside alone, when I’m inside, I always ask God to protect me from the virus because my job is to help keep the place clean,” she said.

The 26-year-old said they can never be too careful.

“What has changed is that you have to be conscious. We always have to check each other if we are wearing the PPEs correctly before we enter in the ward,” she said.

“When you enter the ward, you just feel helpless. It feels like there is nothing you can do for them, and you wish you could help them.”

Thandi Mabaso, 25, who is also a cleaner, said she adjusted to the change when she saw her colleagues working.

“Even though I am scared, I work and clean so that these people can get well. I was scared to even enter the room if there was someone who died. I wait for the body to be removed first, then I can clean when they are done,” she said.

She said she suppresses her fear by having conversations with the patients while she is working.

“I always try to talk to some of them ... so that I can be free when cleaning. Some of the patients try to escape and discharge themselves - they don’t understand why their family can’t visit them.”