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'They've been cool under a lot of pressure': Future doctors respond to Covid-19 call

Future doctors sign up to help overloaded medical teams

21 June 2020 - 00:00 By SUTHENTIRA GOVENDER
Medical student volunteers man the hotlines at the Western Cape disaster management centre at Tygerberg Hospital.
Medical student volunteers man the hotlines at the Western Cape disaster management centre at Tygerberg Hospital.
Image: Supplied

Hundreds of future doctors are getting a real-life “crash course” in pandemic medicine after stepping in to help overwhelmed medical teams in SA’s hardest-hit cities.

Medical students from the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, the Witwatersrand and KwaZulu-Natal are working long hours either fielding calls at disaster management centres, screening and testing, or conducting contact tracing.

Savannah Verhage, a fifth-year UCT student and a co-ordinator of the Covid-19 volunteer initiatives, started with about 100 students responding to a call from the disaster management centre at Tygerberg Hospital to help on the Western Cape hotline.

She quickly extended the volunteer drive to helping with contact tracing by recruiting students around the country to conduct the work remotely.

“At the beginning of May the number of Covid-19 cases began to rise exponentially and the doctors on the frontline were desperately looking for extra hands to help with the patient load in Groote Schuur Hospital’s testing centre,” said Verhage, who described the response as “overwhelming”.

Medical students in their fourth, fifth and sixth years have assisted with the swabbing of patients, while those in their first to third years have been tasked with administrative work. In total, about 250 UCT student volunteers have been rendering support.

“It has been very evident that Covid-19 cases over the last few weeks have started to increase dramatically, as we head towards the peak of the pandemic,” said Verhage.

“Shifts at all three volunteer initiatives have been incredibly busy, with peaks of 130 patients a day in the Groote Schuur testing centre and about 150 calls coming through per day at the provincial Covid-19 hotline from members of the public that are concerned about symptoms.”

Fourth-year student Itumeleng Msimanga said that when the pandemic struck she couldn’t sit at home. “I have been volunteering at the Covid-19 testing and screening centres at Groote Schuur and Tygerberg, helping whenever there is a backlog in daily operations.”

Msimanga said students were supervised by experienced doctors. “Seeing how the medical community has banded together during this time has shown me the exact type of doctor I want to become,” she said.

The best feeling is knowing you are making some kind of difference 
Mpho Mathole, second-year Wits medical student

Wayne Smith, the Western Cape’s head of disaster medicine, said the students have been invaluable. “They have been cool under a lot of pressure and have managed to calm patients who tested positive.”

Professor Richard Cooke, head of family medicine at Wits, said about 425 students were involved in volunteer efforts at community health facilities and hospitals in greater Johannesburg.

Second-year student Mpho Mathole volunteers at the Hillbrow community health clinic, where he assists with screening.

“This experience has taught me how to engage with the community at large. The experience of being involved now on the frontline will prepare us as future doctors for other infections and pandemics,” he said.

“The best feeling is waking up every morning and knowing you are making some kind of difference in your community.”

Kapil Narain, a final-year student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, has conducted testing in Inanda, Phoenix, Tongaat and KwaMashu.

“I tested up to 70 people a day. Most were anxious regarding the pain. However, the procedure is quick. People had good knowledge of the pandemic, though wearing masks and physical distancing was not well practised. There were challenges — in certain areas mobilisation was poor.

“In Inanda, the community health centre where we used to discard medical waste recorded infections among its health-care workers. It had to close and resulted in halting of testing.”

Stellenbosch University fifth-year student Abdul Isaacs said volunteering had been “an excellent learning opportunity as I get to learn more about Covid-19 itself in terms of its symptom profile, risk factors and potential complications”.

A student who did not want to be named has been assisting with screening and swabbing at a testing centre.

“I worry that what I’m seeing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve noticed a large increase in patients at the centre over the past few weeks and with this large increase there has been no increase in staff.”


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