False Bay Hospital doctor on frontline

The tents used for Covid-19 testing and screening outside False Bay Hospital.

The easing of the lockdown this Friday has many sighing with relief, but hospital staff across the country are preparing for the worst.

False Bay Hospital doctor Mercia Theunissen is one of many doctors working on the Covid-19 front line.

The Western Cape now has the most cases and deaths in the country, according to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.

Dr Theunissen, a medical officer at the hospital since 2004, says she’s noticed many changes there in the past two months.

“I have never seen anything like this in my 19 years as a doctor. As we learn more about the virus, things are changing and we are constantly adapting.”

She has been assigned to the patients under investigation unit (PUI) and treats admissions being screened for Covid-19.

Patients are categorised as repository or non-repository and most are tested for Covid-19.

Ordinarily, patients who are healthy enough to return home after screening are discharged and instructed to self-isolate while they await their results. Those not well enough to go home are isolated in the PUI ward while awaiting their results.

Dr Theunissen says the anticipation of the chaos to come – the sort seen in Italy and America – weighs heavy on her mind. “Pre-traumatic stress” is how she describes it.

Things are different in South Africa, she says. In Europe, for example, a patient presenting with upper-respiratory symptoms is almost guaranteed to be
Covid-19 positive. In South Africa, she says, it could be any number of illnesses, such as TB or HIV.

She lives in Milkwood Park with her husband, Mickey, and two children, Johan, 12, and Lila, 9.

Very strict precautions are taken at the hospital, she says, but she still fears taking the virus home to her family.

She is “locked” into the PUI during her shift and cannot leave easily. Before entering the unit, she and her colleagues have to
undress and put their clothes into a sealed bag, which is only opened again when the shift ends. They wear masks, visors and gloves at all times.

Another strict process is followed at the end of the day to decontaminate.

“I sanitise my keys and everything I have touched, and my children know not to come near me when I get home, and I head straight for the washing machine where I undress and wash my clothes immediately. I then have a shower and only then can I say hello to my family.”

Dr Theunissen says she gets amazing support from her husband.

“He absorbs all my fears and keeps things going at home, and he is homeschooling the children while I’m at work.”

While her stress levels remain high, she says the daily 8pm ritual of residents clapping, blowing vuvuzelas and banging on pots and pans brings great joy to all the health-care professionals.

“It’s the highlight of my day and the doctors I work with. It gives me goosebumps and a lump in my throat. It makes me feel like a superhero, and it’s what keeps us going.”

According to Western Cape Department of Health spokeswoman Natalie Watlington, False Bay Hospital is one of the
provincial facilities where a testing and triage site has been added.

Patients are screened and tested in tents outside the main
facilities so those who might be infected do not go into the hospital and infect others.