Living on the frontline: a Durban hospital doctor’s day
It’s 7am. I take over from the night doctor. She looks tired, like she’s had no sleep the entire night. She hands over five patients waiting from the day before for beds, and two for review.
She can barely speak because of the mask and long night. I say, “Get some rest.” She looks at me, giving me the look of “goodluck”. The night has defeated her.
I go back to my car. Put on my plastic apron, my butcher’s thick apron, my half face respirator and my visor and I’m ready.
The Covid clinic is already full. I don my gown, double boots, another plastic apron and double gloves.
I see patients ranging from those battling to breathe on double oxygen to those who are sick but will probably manage on meds at home.
As I listen to each one’s chest I pray the seal on my mask is proper. I can barely hear their breathing. I smile even though they can’t see it and say, “Don ’t worry, you’re going to be OK, we will look after you,” like I always do at the end of the consult.
But now it’s different, because I know I’m lying to some of them. Normally I’m a very imposing figure, but one can imagine seeing me in full PPE trying to reassure someone, and for that person, finding hope with me looking like that will be very difficult.
I sit down and go through each file again. Write up about six different meds for the patients, hoping that it will alter the course they’re on.
I glance outside. The line to get in has doubled. More than 20 patients waiting. I review those whose results are ready, and discharge three. Another five waiting for beds, 10 in total now waiting. I rearrange the files from most sick to least sick, knowing that really they are all sick and all need beds.
My nurse, trying to find beds up to Harrismith, looks at me in distress. He’s only found three so far. I look for blood results. They are not ready. I shout at the nurses to move faster and get the results, because now there are 30 people waiting in line. I feel guilty because I know these nurses are giving their best.
I urge everyone to work harder, faster, because our patients need us. They can’t, they haven’t had a sip of water yet or gone to the loo.
Bloods and X-rays are ready. I discharge five patients. Two more patients are added to the waiting-for-beds list. My nurse asks me if I’ve had something to eat. “No time for that,” I say, and move to the next patient.
The next doctor arrives. I tell him, “Don’t worry about those I’ve seen, I’ll sort them out. See the new patients.”
He doesn’t have any empty beds to see new patients. I get a call. A friend I grew up with can’t breathe. They’re on their way to the hospital. They arrive. He gasps for air. We get a bed as it’s now life or death, so he goes up to the top of the waiting-to-get-in list.
I’m afraid I may have to ventilate one of my closest friends. I start his treatment. Thank God he responds to treatment. No need for intubation. He’s stable. I tell his wife he’s OK over the phone. She’s crying.
I see the rest of my patients whose results are ready. I walk out head down as I’m exhausted, but people are still waiting for help. I’m mentally and physically exhausted. I open a new bin bag in the car, throw all my reusable PPE in and seal it. Spray my shoes and pants bottoms with sanitiser.
I strip naked and soak all my clothes in a tub with soap and disinfectant. My wife gets the rest and soaks it and wipes everything with Dettol — I hate that smell now. I walk into the house, straight into the shower. Scrub with Sanex and Dettol
I phone my wife. I tell her to put on all her PPE, I’m coming home. She has to help me soak everything. I get home, park the car, forget I must leave it in the sun, move it out again. My wife comes, she looks like a minion in her PPE.
I strip naked and soak all my clothes in a tub with soap and disinfectant. My wife gets the rest and soaks it and wipes everything with Dettol — I hate that smell now. I walk into the house, straight into the shower. Scrub with Sanex and Dettol.
I sit on the bed. I ask for my phone. I start returning calls. Lots of people need advice. I warn my wife again that my mother is not to come downstairs. I’m afraid if I do bring something back and infect her at 75years old I know I’ll lose her. She’s all the blood family I have left.
I lie on my bed. I tear up thinking about all those I couldn’t help and can’t help. While I type this my throat is burning. I pray it’s because of the respirator and not the virus.
*The writer is a Durban doctor who wishes to remain anonymous
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