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‘There were moments it felt like all I did was move between beds to declare patients dead’ — Groote Schuur Hospital doctor

Dr Estie Meyer and fellow healthcare workers at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. (Photo: Supplied)

ENT surgeon Dr Estie Meyer recounts her harrowing experience of the Covid-19 pandemic to date and reveals the daily traumas that she and her medical counterparts endure; extreme psychological and physical strains that permeate all aspects of their lives.

Dr Estie Meyer is an ENT Surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital. Heroes of Groote Schuur is a project of the Groote Schuur Hospital Facility Board, which is governed by the Western Cape Health Facility Board Act 7 of 2001.

This article was first published on the Heroes of Groote Schuur Facebook page.

Dear Reader,

I am not a hero. My time in the Covid wards has been extremely brief. I am merely telling you my experience as I have to try and make sense of what I have been through. I can only imagine how those that have been doing this since last year must be feeling.

In January 2021 I found myself in the high care unit — this unit provides the highest care before you get intubated in ICU. The patients there are sick, often too tired to talk. These patients do one of three things — die, go to ICU, or the moment they are better they are moved to another ward. There is a high turnover of patients, monitors beeping non-stop and at least five new folders a day waiting on the desk… put there for death certificates.

I cried every day during my time in this unit and for several months after this. I would just spontaneously start crying, sometimes even in mundane places, like the grocery aisle. But after this, life went on. My kids started a new school, theatres opened, and things returned to a more normal way of living. I was so happy to get the vaccine, I contemplated getting a tattoo but instead had my ears pierced.

Then the third wave hit us. I knew that my presence made a difference and took the load off the overworked physicians ever so slightly, so I put my hand up to return to a Covid ward. This time I was allocated to a ward with 32 beds, occupied by patients who happened to be positive or had milder covid pneumonia.

At present, I am exhausted, depleted and nearly broken. So why am I so traumatised?

The moment the ward opened I walked in to find a patient dying. For two months I had at least 1-2 deaths per day. I started dreading opening the doors to the ward… wondering which beds would be empty. There were moments it felt like all I did was move between beds to declare patients dead. The patients were not fat and old anymore. They were young and fit. My age… and the peak was not passing. It just got longer and longer. Never in my life had I seen so many dead people in such a short time. Though it is not the deaths that nearly broke me… It was balancing the emotions of the patients and their families that sucked out a piece of my soul every single time.

This is the reality of Covid; the patients are scared, they know Covid can kill. Their families are often strewn all over the hospital, all battling the virus. They cannot see what is going on and rely on text messages. As doctors and nurses, we are the ones that carry that burden with them. We have to encourage them, be sad with them and urge them to hang on for dear life. We have to chat to family members and sound optimistic although we know things are not looking good. The worst is calling the family in to come and say goodbye, to meet them at the door to explain to them what to expect and advising them to talk and not ask questions as gran/mum/dad… is too out of breath and should not use their last energy to respond.

The tipping point for me came when my 35-year-old patient, a doting mother waiting for a kidney transplant, died. On the Monday her saturation started to drop. We tried everything, called in everyone but nothing worked. She asked me on the Thursday if I thought she was going to die. I just sat there and cried with her. She said she had come such a long way and all she needed was a kidney transplant and she was too young to leave her children. She died on the Friday morning. I phoned the husband at 08.00. Thirty minutes later I received the phone call from her mom wanting to know how her daughter was doing. For the second time that day I had to repeat the most difficult words… “I am sorry, but…”

Soon after that, another sweet, friendly, and ever-optimistic patient started sobbing when I arrived for my shift one day. She had just learned her husband had passed away in the ward just below her… I did not know he was there so we did not help her to see him.

I realised I needed help and joined the support group at work. There you would hear equally horrific stories.

There are a few things I will never forget — how it sucks out a piece of your soul when you phone a family with bad news and they start wailing on the other end. I hated to see how dignified ladies were struggling to breathe so much that they did not care whether they were naked or covered up… all they were concentrating on was inhaling and exhaling. It was sad to see how independent breadwinners were too tired to even walk two metres to a toilet and had to use a bedpan with the privacy of only a curtain.

What is the lesson I have learned from this experience…?

Let’s be kind to one another. That is what got me through this time. Small gestures like a biscuit from the medical consultant when I had my coffee, a doctor that is not even a close friend giving me a massage voucher as she saw what a bad state I was in, and a hug by a nurse when I had to do my third phone call of the day. I saw how one nurse helped another with a home school project as both of their kids were still only going to school every second day. A beautician listening to me for two hours after I just sobbed in her room when she asked how my day was. So be kind. As that is the only way broken medical personnel can come to work the next day… and the next wave. DM/MC

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All Comments 9

  • I hope that if I ever need your services, that you would be with me. I hope that along the way I can provide you with the support you have given to others. And I hope that everyone gets vaccinated so that this terrible strain on our dedicated and precious health care services can come to an end.

  • My daughter is a intern at Victoria Hospital – this sounds like her story. All of you are our heros – you are all appreciated and loved – thank you for sharing.

  • This story made me weep for all those families…all that fear and loneliness at the end of one’s life…all the heartbreak for years to come…for not being able to say goodbye, I love you and thank you for your friendship. And I wept for those brave souls who come face to face with this dreadful disease day after day, trying their best to keep us alive, trying to assuage that fear that you’re not going to make it, helping those struggling to breathe. Thank you for all that you do…everyday…for everyone under your care.

  • Thank you to you and all the people who without a thought for themselves give of themselves so generously, you will always be in my thoughts and prayers.