Silver lining to Covid cloud: We owe our health workers our lives as well as our concerted protection

By Helen Moffett 22 February 2021

Kathy Wootton leaves Life Kingsbury Hospital after 65 days in ICU with Covid-19. (Photo: Screengrab)

Kathy Wootton emerged from 65 days of intensive care treatment thanks to the unyielding commitment of Life Kingsbury Hospital healthcare workers. As Wootton’s sister Helen Moffett writes, deeper introspection and higher levels of consciousness are required by many South Africans who collectively understate the ceaseless Covid-19 reality for healthcare workers and the impact our actions have on their lives.

Last week, my sister Kathy Wootton left Life Kingsbury Hospital in Cape Town after a record-breaking 65 days in their Intensive Care Unit with Covid-19. She spent almost a month of that in a coma on a ventilator. A video taken by a staff member, showing her being wheeled out — pumping her arms Rocky Balboa-style and blowing kisses at the cheering staff — went viral, getting around 250 shares on Facebook alone (at the time of writing) and tens of thousands of views.

To me, it’s the most beautiful and moving clip I’ll ever see — I weep every time I watch it — but then I’m a little biased. What has been striking is the popularity of the video, and the intense emotions it inspires in strangers. Obviously, it’s the happy ending we all want to a Covid story, and it’s good news at a time when this is in very short supply. Almost everyone is depressed, broke, burnt out — many have lost loved ones, their health, their livelihoods. It’s a comfort to be reminded, in the words of the poet Sheenagh Pugh, that “sometimes, things don’t go from bad to worse”.

But what is especially moving is not just the sight of my sister waving from her gurney, alive, on her way to step-down care and the rest of her life: it’s the palpable joy of the staff giving her a rousing send-off. It’s their cheers and celebrations that have gripped viewers, that have had hundreds of strangers describing how tears rolled down their cheeks as they watched.

The video shows almost the entire personnel of the hospital gathered to line the passages and the foyer. As my sister appears, the whooping and applauding starts and grows to a crescendo as she’s wheeled through the reception area. The ambulance paramedic pushing the gurney told her that in her career, she’d never seen a send-off like it.

This is an opportunity not just to let families in the same desperately anxious position know that having a loved one in an induced coma on a ventilator can have the best possible outcome — it’s a story about the heroism, but perhaps more important and largely unremarked upon, the compassion and passion of South Africa’s healthcare workers. And their need for happy endings, too.

Christine Malan, manager of Life Kingsbury, who was consistently kind during the worst weeks of our lives, even though she was running a hospital in the throes of the second wave, wrote to say what a lift my sister’s recovery had given her staff at a time when morale sorely needed boosting, how genuinely overjoyed they were by her recovery.

It’s become a cliché to speak of the heroism of healthcare workers during pandemic times, to pay lip service to their courage.

The one thing I can and must do is insist that we support healthcare workers by maintaining social and physical distance, observing all hygiene protocols, cancelling our Easter travel plans and family gatherings. Above all, wear masks — not for yourself, but for the medical workers who cheered and whooped and even shed tears of joy as they applauded my sister on her way.

I went off social media for the six weeks during which my sister’s condition was critical, but when I returned, I wrote about our experience in a Facebook post I accidentally set to public. The trolls came out in force. I wasn’t interested in the “scamdemic” peddlers who demanded to know what comorbidities my sister had (none, not that this is ever relevant; blaming victims of this awful disease is unacceptable, given that every one of us will experience old age, illness and injury). The woman who said I had been brainwashed by the Centers for Disease Control in the US (what, into imagining those 65 days?) needs professional help, and I told the ditsy space cadet who commented on how “fearful” I was that until she had first-hand experience of wondering every minute of every hour of every day, week after week after week after month, whether or not a loved one would live, she had no idea what fear was.

What troubled me most was a mild comment questioning whether lockdown restrictions were necessary now that the second wave had peaked, and hospital beds were available once again, with ICUs and oxygen no longer under pressure.

This attitude, of seeing access to medical treatment as a commodity, seems to confuse hospitals with hotels. Capacity — the structural ability of hospitals and clinics to provide care to sick people, to have the necessary drugs, equipment, beds available — is of course vital. But by far our most valuable resource, especially during a pandemic, consists of medical personnel and hospital staff. All the ventilators in the world are useless without human beings who know how to intubate a patient who can’t breathe, who know how to operate the machines.

My sister owes her life to an entire network of people — porters, cleaners, physiotherapists, nurses, specialist doctors, anaesthetists, surgeons, X-ray technicians, cooks, nutritionists, microbiologists — in which the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. She was saved by the unstinting care of a team: a community.

When we assume that healthcare workers are automatons, or worse, lump them in the same category as the waitstaff bringing us our cocktails — faceless persons who exist only to serve our needs — we fail to recognise that they are people embedded in families and communities, who are doing a terrifying job under awful circumstances.

Every day they go to work in the knowledge that they are at the coalface of an infectious disease that might sicken or even kill them — or put at risk their aunt undergoing chemotherapy, their eighty-something diabetic father, their asthmatic child. They are overstretched, exhausted, demoralised.

Can we not give up our parties and gatherings so that they can have a little respite? One doctor in a KZN hospital had to ring 19 families in one day to give them the news that their loved ones had succumbed to Covid. Nineteen. Imagine what that does to the soul.

And human, frail and frightened as they must be, yet they show up for the rest of us. I can testify that they fought like tigers to save my sister. I have learned the profound humility of owing my happiness to complete strangers. My family and I are in enormous karmic debt to people we will most likely never meet or be able to thank in person.

The one thing I can and must do is insist that we support healthcare workers by maintaining social and physical distance, observing all hygiene protocols, cancelling our Easter travel plans and family gatherings. Above all, wear masks — not for yourself, but for the medical workers who cheered and whooped and even shed tears of joy as they applauded my sister on her way.

To return to the video, a close family friend remarked that what made it so moving was that in the last bleak year, the isolation and fragmentation created by lockdowns, we have had few opportunities to see humanity at its best. We have watched a bludgeoning barrage of human beings behaving badly via the media for so long now, we have forgotten what communal decency looks like. And to see it performed so joyously and sincerely by overburdened and weary healthcare workers, who have been carrying the can for the rest of us, is profoundly affecting. We thank and salute them, and will bloody well wear masks to protect them.

 There’s a wonderful coda to this story; as the ambulance carrying my sister away from the hospital sped down the highway, the news came that the first healthcare worker in South Africa had just been vaccinated. A double happy ending. DM/MC

Helen Moffett is an author, freelance editor, academic and feminist activist. She has a PhD from the University of Cape Town and has published 21 books. The latest is her novel Charlotte, a Pride and Prejudice sequel.

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