Serving at a time of COVID-19

Thursday, June 25, 2020
Dr Katlego Lekalakala.

Dr Katlego Lekalakala has not seen her mother or her other loved ones in over two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She, like many around the country, last saw her loved ones in the days leading up to the country’s COVID-19 lockdown back in March.

While some may resent the lockdown, which came into place at midnight on 26 March 2020 for separating them from their loved ones, the doctor sees staying away is a precaution to protect her family.

With the number of those contracting the virus on the rise, it is essential for South Africans to do their bit to curb the spread of the virus.

When Lekalakala started her first year of medicine at the University of Pretoria (UP) in 2014, she had no idea that one day she would work at a COVID-19 facility.

The 26-year-old plies her trade at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, which is one of Gauteng’s designated COVID-19 quarantine facilities.

The mere thought of visiting a quarantine facility could make anybody break into a cold sweat. However, Lekalakala has no qualms reporting for duty at the hospital.

“I get to see cases that people dream of seeing - that’s the best part about being at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital.”

In terms of COVID-19, the doctor says the hospital has done a good job at protecting staff.

“They did not wait for something to happen for them to act. I felt that the hospital was already in lockdown before the lockdown even took place,” she said.

Staff at the hospital are tested for the virus on a regular basis. Those who test positive go into quarantine.

The hospital has also implemented a system whereby doctors work in groups, ensuring that should a doctor test positive, that particular group of doctors go into isolation.

This helps efforts to ensure that other staff members do not contract the virus.

Some staff members have struggled with being tested. “That’s the one thing healthcare workers don’t enjoy. The swabbing is traumatising,” said Lekalakala.

However, the regular testing of staff is a necessity.

Since the implementation of the lockdown, the hospital has implemented various changes at some of the wards.

“For example, one ward which would take babies of a certain age, has become a ward for respiratory diseases… For some time, the respiratory ward did not have that many patients. However, the respiratory ward has had to take all COVID-19 suspected cases,” she explained.

Nurses have also been reassigned to other wards.

In addition, the hospital does not condone the stigmatisation of those who contract the virus.

Lekalakala has been in the employ of the hospital for six months.

“It’s been six months and it has been a great experience,” she said in a telephonic interview with SAnews

While she currently works in paediatrics and not with patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, Lekalakala is required to put on personal protective equipment (PPE).

The level of PPE she has to wear while on duty has increased.

“As expected with the drop in temperature making people more susceptible to contracting respiratory diseases such as COVID-19, there has been an increase in the number of positive patients.”

While many South Africans still struggle with having to put on a cloth facemask when stepping out of their homes, the feeling seems to be mutual among doctors.

“So we wear a visor and an N95 mask but normally we would wear a normal surgical mask, your normal clothes and your scrub. We are given a gown every day. Then you put on a plastic apron on top when you work with patients and you obviously change it off as you work with different patients,” she said.

Lekalakala then also has to put on gloves.

“The PPE is enough but it’s very uncomfortable and very hot,” she said.

The virus has not only changed the professional and personal lives of citizens, but that of healthcare workers as well.

“For us as healthcare workers being at risk of contracting [COVID-19], there is an added anxiety of going to work and coming home to our loved ones, and possibly exposing them [to the virus] and the guilt that will come if they do actually test positive,” said Lekalakala.

Naturally, one would wonder how her family feels about her working at a quarantine hospital.

“They’re fine. I have very positive people in life, who educate themselves a lot. They do know that I’m at risk but they also know that everyone else is also at risk. Personally, I have not seen my mom because she is a diabetic. I do not want to take that risk. I last saw her before the lockdown and we had dinner.”

Lekalakala has also not been able to see her sibling, who has two young children.

“I cannot bend the rules because everybody in my family has someone that if they got COVID-19, it would tip them over,” she said.

As in any career, the young professional has experienced highs and lows.

“The worst low is knowing that no matter what you do, your efforts might not be enough and although you understand it’s not your fault, it’s not easy accepting it all the time. Loss of patients can feel personal,” she said.

Her proudest moment is being able to effect change in a patient.

“Being able to see yourself affect a change in someone’s life because of a decision that you made is a high. I’ve really enjoyed most days in the hospital than not. Medicine is great and can really be fulfilling.”

Having taken her medical oath last year, the bubbly Lekalakala would have graduated from UP in April. However, lockdown regulations have barred public gatherings of more than 50 people.

In complying with the regulations, most institutions of higher learning have postponed their graduation ceremonies to a later date.

Taking the oath was a proud moment in her life.

“It felt surreal because at that time, I was working as a make-up artist. For two years of my medical studies, I worked as a makeup artist and I was very, very busy. Sometimes things did not go very well,” she said.

She turned to make-up artistry during her medical school days as a way to make ends meet.

The young doctor still has a love for make-up and shows off this skill on her social media platforms.

In addition, the pandemic has not dampened Lekalakala’s passion for practising medicine.

She has also been impressed by the manner in which government has handled the pandemic.

“Seeing what the President has done, I [have] felt protected. I have faith in our government, which makes me have faith in our health system, and faith in medicine.

“The pandemic has not changed my mind in terms of practising medicine. I’m still very excited about practising medicine and I’m still keen on practising medicine in South Africa because the government is protecting me during this time.”

As South Africa commemorates Youth Month, Lekalakala said the current environment provides young people with an opportunity to become pioneers of a changing world.

“I think that this is the best time to actually strive and push, because we’re going to get a revolutionised world. If you have the opportunity to be active in the economy, if you have the opportunity to be part of the revolution, then don’t give up on it.

“You don’t want the world to leave you behind. This is the best time to try and get involved. It’s a different time for all of us but you need to take advantage of that,” she said.

Lekalakala is passionate about helping young people in medicine to succeed.

She recently started the “Let us study with you” initiative, whereby young doctors assist medical students in their final year of study.

“The reason I started it is that I know many [students] get to a point where they feel they’re not good enough. We are about eight doctors, and we cover a few of the rotations and students are eager and keen to learn,” she said.

While it may feel like the virus has brought chaos and anxiety into the world, young South Africans like Lekalakala inspire hope for a better future. –