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SPOTLIGHT

‘Some days tears were just flowing over my cheeks’ – Cape Town ICU nurse

‘Some days tears were just flowing over my cheeks’ – Cape Town ICU nurse
Nurses in Tygerberg Hospital's Covid-19 isolation unit during a media tour. (Photo by Misha Jordaan / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Covid-19 patients often die without family or loved ones by their side. However, they are not entirely alone. People like nurse Anthea Willemse console them in their final hour.

At Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, 50-year-old nurse Anthea Willemse has worked at the same intensive care unit (ICU) for 25 years. The ward was converted to accommodate Covid-19 patients in March, and its capacity swelled from eight beds to 48. A month ago, as the epidemic peaked in the Western Cape, up to five bodies were being removed from the ICU each day.

Willemse touches patients nearing their end with her latex gloves, reads to them from her Afrikaans Bible – Psalm 23 – and sometimes sings songs of worship to them. Often she lies to them because she doesn’t have much choice. She tells them everything will be okay.

“Some days tears were just flowing over my cheeks,” she says. “I realised life is so short. And the fact that these patients are passing away, the fact that there’s no visiting hours, that there is no opportunity for their families and loved ones to say goodbye. 

“These people leave this world alone, you know. Just with us, people they don’t know – strangers. And sometimes you see how afraid they are. You look in their eyes and you see how uncertain they are.”

Willemse says patients would often ask her what will happen.

“What can we tell them? I just say to them everything is going to be fine. Even though I know it probably won’t be. In a way, I have to lie to these patients. I am not a liar, but I have no choice.”

 Rain is pelting down outside as Willemse speaks to Spotlight over the phone at 21:00 on a cold winter’s evening. Her 12-hour shift ended at 19:00, after which she showered at the hospital, then drove her Polo the 30 minutes to her home in Mitchells Plain.

Usually, her two daughters, aged 30 and 22, don’t cook for her because they prefer their mummy’s food. But this evening they treated her to mutton stew, says Willemse. She also has a 13-year-old son and two toddler grandchildren.

Willemse is the family’s breadwinner.

Speaking to Spotlight, her sentences are punctuated with endearments like “my darling” and “my liefie” (my love).

“The thing is, this virus, it’s so quick,” says Willemse. “You do the observations now. And I mean, literally, you just turn your back. Maybe [you go to] have tea [or] go to the toilet. And when you come back, you see that the patient is wrapped.” Willemse says one is left wondering what just happened.

“Some of them are unconscious, but most are not. Yes, I touch them to comfort them. We wear protective clothes, so it’s safe. We speak to the patients. I sing to them. It’s really scary, my love, because they die so quickly.”

Each bed in the ICU has a cardiac monitor, a ventilator, and high-flow oxygen equipment. 

“Most of our patients, we nurse them on high-flow,” she says. “This is little pipes up the nose. If the patient deteriorates and needs the ventilator, then the doctor will put a tube in their mouth, and then into their lungs. And then the machine supports the patient. It’s like the machine is breathing for the patient.”

Willemse says most of the patients who pass away are aged 50 or older, with comorbidities such as diabetes.

She contracted Covid-19 herself, but has been back at work for the past month.

“I didn’t have all those symptoms,” she says. “My throat was sore and then I had a cough. I thought it’s wintertime, and it’s flu time, so it’s normal even though I didn’t have an appetite for two weeks.” 

“Beds are now empty,” says Willemse. “It wasn’t [always] like that. When your patient died, the undertakers would take the body away and then the next patient was admitted. But now I feel we are starting to overcome this thing. It makes me feel as a person that we are doing something right.

Willemse says she was living on a banana a day and yoghurt and ice.

“My temperature was down. Later my doctor said to me, the reason I didn’t have a temperature was because of all the ice I ate,” she says.

“One Saturday morning, I just fainted. I got out of my bed, went to the toilet and passed out. My daughters took me to my doctor. He told me that I had a bad lung infection. He put me on antibiotics and suggested that I get tested for Covid too.

“On Monday I was feeling better, but on Wednesday the doctor at Tygerberg WhatsApped me. He said, ‘Boeboe (that’s my nickname at work), I have some bad news for you.’ He offered me a hospital bed, but I declined, saying I’d rather isolate at home and care for myself.

“I arranged for my children to stay with my sister in Athlone, but they refused, saying that if they were to contract the virus, we should all self-isolate together. Thank God they never caught it.

“Most of the time over the next 14 days, I was just lying in the bed. One day, I thought, ‘No man, Covid.’ I was speaking out loud, saying, ‘Covid, I didn’t invite you into my house. I didn’t invite you into my life.’ My son was worried and asked if everything was normal. I told him I was fine and decided right there to put this thing out of my life, out of my house, off my property. So, I got up, had a nice bath and put on a pretty dress. A black dress with pink sandals. I said, ‘Covid, you don’t belong in my house.’ I put it out – I put Covid out. From that day, I’ve been up and about. I cleaned my house.”

Asked about her own lifestyle, Willemse says she doesn’t smoke or drink, but she does have a penchant for takeaways. “According to my colleagues, I’m a little overweight. So ja,” she says.

Willemse is one of six siblings. She grew up in Surrey Estate near Athlone in Cape Town.

Her training was at Zerilda Steyn Old Age Home in Pinelands, where she did a one-year nursing course.

 Why did she become a nurse?

“My sweetie,” says Willemse, “from when I could think, I was into nursing. I always wanted to care for people. I said to my mum one day, I want to look after you. That was my calling, being a nurse.”

Willemse says her mum passed away five years ago. She had lung cancer. “The two weeks before she died, she came home from the hospital. I put in leave from work and looked after her really well for those last two weeks.”

Meanwhile, at Tygerberg Hospital, a sense of triumph is stirring in the Covid-19 ICU as the pressure of the pandemic eases.

“Beds are now empty,” says Willemse. “It wasn’t [always] like that. When your patient died, the undertakers would take the body away and then the next patient was admitted. But now I feel we are starting to overcome this thing. It makes me feel as a person that we are doing something right.

“Besides, now I have antibodies. I’m not scared. I wasn’t even scared at the beginning, because this has been like a ‘lekker uitdaging’, you know, a good challenge. I mean, we’ve never been involved in a pandemic like this. So ja, it was actually a good challenge to go to work in the mornings and to look after these patients.” DM/MC

This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest. Sign up for our newsletter.

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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