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“You feared the virus, but you were ready to fight.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to South Africa in March, ER24 paramedics immediately started receiving the relevant training and information about the coronavirus and the toll it would take on people and the health system in the coming months. Frontline workers knew and understood that there was an increased risk of infection with the virus. Three ER24 medics, one being pregnant, share their stories of being COVID-19 positive and what they’ve learned throughout their experience.

Nomaphelo Lukubane (BLS) ER24 Western Cape West:

“It started with a runny nose and a dry cough, and after telling my branch manager, I immediately went for the test at Mediclinic Cape Town. The next day I experienced a loss of appetite and a loss of taste and smell. Part of me already knew that there was a possibility of being COVID-19 positive, so when I received the results, I wasn’t really shocked.”

Nomaphelo tested positive in June. Although slightly less worried about herself, her main priority was the effect it might have on her unborn baby. She was 13 weeks pregnant when she contracted the virus.

“I kept thinking will the baby be safe. I was prepared for what was to come and not so stressed, but I was worried about my baby.”

ER24 provide accommodation to staff who do not have the means to isolate at home, but Nomaphelo’s husband remained steadfast in his decision: “He said that I needed to be by his side. Even from the beginning, he said that he doesn’t want me to go through this on my own. We let our daughter (7) stay with my cousin for the duration of the 14 days.”

In isolation, she received support from her colleagues, family and friends but missing out on her daughter’s 8th birthday took its toll.

“I felt very emotional that I couldn’t see her or be with her. At Grobler (ER24 Trauma Support Coordinator) phoned me and told me that he knows I am strong, and I will get through this. I was crying, and by the end of the phone call, I was laughing again. I accepted it, and I knew all that I could do was take care of myself and get healthy.”

Nomaphelo talks about the support she received with a smile in her voice. “From my family’s side, my friends and colleagues, and management. No words can describe the support. I am forever grateful to all who reached out to help. Special thanks to Dr Robyn Holgate (ER24’s Chief Medical Officer), Shane Fascio, my branch manager, At and my West Metro family. You miss a lot when you are in isolation. It can be very lonely. You miss being able to go to the shop, going outside or just greeting your neighbours. You miss everything.”

Apart from not seeing her daughter for two weeks, the hardest part was being on the receiving side and not being able to help her patients.

“My husband took care of me and not the other way around. As a paramedic, I am used to providing help. I love my profession as much as I love people, and I like providing them with care.”

Since the first patient tested positive for the coronavirus in South Africa, there was an element of concern from community members that were high risk, and it is important that the community realise that anyone is able to contract the virus – and that there should be a strong community support to test and self-isolate without fear of condemnation from the community.

Nomaphelo believes that stigma only creates a divide and that during this time, people should be there for one another. “The stigma is similar to what people thought of others who were diagnosed with HIV. Now, this new virus almost creates the same divide. Everyone is scared of it and scared to get it. As soon as you test positive, you need to share your story, as you will need the support of friends and your family.

“I defeated the virus with the help of my husband and my colleagues at ER24. Shane prepped us so well for what was to come. Yes, you feared the virus, but you were ready to fight.”

*Nomaphelo and baby are doing well, and she has since safely returned to work.

Caitlin Mostert (ALS) ER24 Western Cape West:

“I started experiencing atypical symptoms like a stiff back on Monday morning. I took an anti-inflammatory and felt fine. However, on Tuesday during my shift I developed sore eyes and a stuffy nose. I contacted my branch manager and was sent home during my shift to start isolating safely – forcing my poor parents to move out of their own room. I got myself tested on Wednesday, and on the Thursday morning, my test results came back, and I had tested positive. My first reaction was that of guilt. How many people have I infected? I also felt frustrated as I felt I did everything I could and should, but I still tested positive.”

Caitlin shares a house with 5 family members and immediately moved to her parent’s bedroom where she could self-isolate. Her sore eyes lasted for about 6 days, and she felt off-balance. She also developed tonsillitis on top of it all.

“My symptoms were mild, and I count myself as one of the lucky ones. It won’t just be like you see in the media. It will affect everyone differently.”

The one thing Caitlin feels strongly about is sharing your experience so someone else who fears the virus or is battling with the virus can learn from it.

“Humans need social contact and support, and during the lockdown, I realised how we took it for granted every day. I feel like things have become so sensationalised and people are so frightened. Yes, you must be cautious and follow all the necessary guidelines on keeping yourself safe, but do not push people away. Isolation is extremely lonely, and the support I received truly helped me get better. Your mental wellbeing is also essential. If you know of someone who is ill or know of someone who is staying on their own, remember to check-in via a phone call, or a message just to let them know that you are there. The thing with lockdown is that physical social interactions were no longer an option. That worries me about isolation too. It can be extremely lonely, especially if you are on your own. That is why the stigma needs to change to support others who are ill.”

As a paramedic, she believes that one less frontline worker can have a massive impact on the level of help available. That being said, she was also fully aware that she might contract the virus being an essential worker.

“My family knows the risks involved, and they told me if I should become ill, they will help me through it. As a paramedic, you get so used to a high paced lifestyle, that to all of a sudden have to slow down can be quite an adjustment. I used this time to focus on myself, change my perspective and allowed myself to rest. Having been working during the whole lockdown also reiterated how important my job is. It is nice to be recognised. The focus has been nice – especially showing how important essential workers are and always have been. Although people are scared, they are still fighting.”

Caitlin wishes to reiterate that the coronavirus is here, and most probably for quite a while.

“People are resilient, and we have had to change the way we live. My worst fear was where will I get infected, or how is it going to affect me. I knew that I most probably would get it from work. But I was worried about bringing it home to my family. I believe that we shouldn’t be hush-hush about it – we should talk to one another and learn from each other.

*Caitlin is doing well and has since safely returned to work.

Tembinkosi Mbulawa (BLS) ER24 Western Cape West:

“I woke up feeling fine on the 17th of June, but after a short while, I experienced some symptoms. I had a runny nose; I was sneezing, and I felt like I had a fever. I told my partner that I was not feeling well. I immediately phoned my branch manager; I went to get tested, and I tested positive. I know as a frontline worker there will always be risks, and this was just one of those situations.”

Like most people who contract the virus even after following all the guidelines and protocols, Tembinkosi notes that it could have happened anywhere.

“I could have contracted it from a patient or while using public transport. You just don’t know. That is why you have to monitor any symptoms closely so that if you do get sick, you can immediately notify the people around you and self-isolate.”

Tembinkosi self-isolated at his home, while his wife and son (6) went to live with his sister for the time being.

“I received so much support from At, Dr Robyn Holgate and my branch manager Shane. I received a phone call from them almost every day. I felt alone at times, but the support I got makes you feel like, ‘I am going to be alright.”

He explains that his symptoms changed daily, but he was thrilled that his family did not contract the virus. “It was so wonderful when they could return home, and I am so happy to be healthy again and back at work helping others who need it most.”