'Isolation kills a person before they die': Reflections from the front line

15 September 2020 - 06:30 By THAPELO MOREBUDI
Sister Tryphina Zwane contracted Covid-19 in the line of duty. She is back at work helping the community of Tshwane and the vulnerable at the Sediba Clinic.
Sister Tryphina Zwane contracted Covid-19 in the line of duty. She is back at work helping the community of Tshwane and the vulnerable at the Sediba Clinic.
Image: Sunday Times/Thapelo Morebudi

Sister Tryphina Zwane’s calm presence belies the fear and worry she faces daily on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic.

The fear is real for Zwane, who contracted the virus herself. Unlike some of her colleagues though, she survived.

“I’m deeply touched when I hear the news of colleagues that have passed away. It scares me as a front-line worker, but it also pushes you to be extra careful to wear PPE [personal protective gear] and not to make mistakes.”

Zwane has been working with Doctors Without Borders for about four months and is based at the Sediba Clinic in Pretoria. Here the medical staff - many of them supported by Doctors Without Borders - treat mainly foreign nationals and migrants, as the spectre of the pandemic hovers ominously overhead.

Being in isolation during recovery was tough for Zwane.

“I think the isolation part is what kills a person before they actually die. The thought of death consumes you because you have nothing else to think of except for thinking of death. You are really, really aware of your symptoms and everything that can go wrong,” she said.

“What is worse is the stigma. I think the stigma is worse than with HIV. My friends who knew that I was in quarantine were frequently checking on me, but as soon as I told them I tested positive for Covid-19, things changed - just like that.

“I stay alone, and there was one day I slept without electricity and on an empty stomach because nobody wanted to go and buy me food and electricity. My friends just stayed away.”

Luckily there was a nursing sister assigned to check up on her, and she finally had someone to lean on.

Dr Astrid Samuels.
Dr Astrid Samuels.
Image: Sunday Times/Thapelo Morebudi

Close to Zwane’s nursing station at the clinic are the doctors’ rooms, where Dr Astrid Samuels and Dr Ayanda Cengimbo also pay testimony to winning the battle against Covid-19.

Like Zwane, they are acutely aware of safety protocols when they consult with patients, and through their illness got a first-hand understanding of the stigma and desperation their patients have to contend with.

Samuels, 31, explained the step-by-step procedure of preparation they have to go through - from the N95 mask to the face shield - before starting her work in the gazebo stationed at the side of the clinic entrance. 

“I have seen and worked on patients with Covid-19 and subsequently contracted the virus myself, which was very hard given that I have a three-year-old child. Having to isolate from a young child like that was a challenge,” she said. ​

When TimesLIVE visited the facility, 53-year-old Cengimbo was busy capturing information on an electronic database – a rare moment of relative calm in an otherwise hectic day.

Dr Ayanda Cengimbo.
Dr Ayanda Cengimbo.
Image: Sunday Times/Thapelo Morebudi

“It is quiet today,” she said. “People come in a bit late these days.”

Cengimbo explained the work they do at the Sediba clinic.

“Our programme is called the Tshwane Migrant Project. Its purpose is to address the health needs of migrants and other people who find themselves challenged in this regard,” she said, moving her stethoscope into the right position as she waited to see a patient.

“It’s hard work, and it’s not without scares - but it’s important.”

“It’s very scary to work during the pandemic. Having contracted the virus myself, it was not nice to have a person buy you food and leave the plastic outside for you to take after they have left.

“The person doesn’t even want to see you. That’s how scared people are Covid-19.

“On the positive side, it was an eye-opener to know what patients go through - more so the stigma they have to deal with.”

In the end, all health-care workers can appeal for is that people follow the government’s health guidelines, added Cengimbo.

“They’re simple, but they work: wash hands regularly with soap or sanitiser, keep a safe distance between each other, wear a mask, and stay home if you have nothing of need to do outside.”