Anxiety and fear are the emotions at the forefront lately for most doctors. Speaking to Paediatrician Dr. Nellie Balfour over a Zoom meeting was refreshing and saddening at the same time. “I feel as though we are waiting for ‘something’ to happen. This is a general feeling among all of us at work,” she says. She had come off a 26-hour shift that morning. “These are normal shift hours for many doctors, and these hours are likely to increase as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” she says. You can see from the glow in her eyes, that she loves working with children. “Children make everything better and they’re extremely resilient,” she adds.
Adapting to the ‘new normal’
South Africa’s COVID-19 cases are sitting at over 4 500*. Dr. Balfour says it’s as if she and her colleagues are waiting for something to happen. “We get briefed every day via email or our work WhatsApp group on what to do when a certain scenario occurs,” she says. South Africa’s winter and flu season is approaching quickly (June to September) and this may bring brand new cases and changes. “With the winter seasons fast approaching, we haven’t seen the COVID-19 numbers that the rest of the world has seen, as of yet,” says Dr. Balfour.
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I wasn’t that child who always dreamt of being a doctor. On the contrary I wanted to either become an English teacher or a DJ. The path that lead me to this job, which has now become a calling, included me being a sickly child who was admitted to hospital multiple times, as well as me trying to prove to one of my doubtful and judgmental science teachers that I could be accepted into med school. The 6 years of med school solidified my love for medicine and my 9 years of being a doctor has deepened my passion for helping people. Now I’m gearing up to go to “war” against this virus that has taken so many lives across the world and broken up so many families, and I feel like all my training and experience has culminated to this. My colleagues and I are scared but we do quite a good job at hiding it because we know that when one of us falls apart then it’ll be a ripple effect. Instead we keep our spirits up by talking about unrelated events and sharing stories that make us laugh. My two best friends are doctors and I think I’m blessed in this regard because we know what the other is going through and support one another by telling each other that God is for us so nothing can be against us. I think the hardest part of all of this is going to work, gearing up for whatever the day is going to give us, waiting in anticipation for sick patients that we may not be able to save, choosing who gets a chance at life and who doesn’t, and in the meanwhile knowing that we are going to lose colleagues to this virus since we are on the front line and don’t have the privilege of staying at home. What keeps me strong is knowing that I’ve been called to do this job and what keeps me going are my mother’s prayers. Health workers are the most at risk population for getting Covid-19 because of the continuous exposure we will have to it while treating and managing patients. So if my job is to be at work risking my life for all of you, I think it’s not unreasonable for you to stay at home and protect yourselves and us. #StayAtHome #WeAreInThisTogether #Covid19 #IAmADoctor
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It’s a difficult time for everyone, but Dr. Balfour has mastered prayer and journaling as part of her routine to mentally prepare herself for what each new day brings, to help her cope with what she has been dealing with every day. ” Every morning I wake up and say a prayer before proceeding to do some meditation and doing breathing exercises,” she says.
Mental Health Care For Doctors
While being a doctor needs a heart for people, there’s a lot of pressure on the healthcare system. Doctors go through depression and mental health illnesses and even substance abuse — it’s not an easy industry. Mental health statistics continue to skyrocket around the world during this pandemic. In Cape Town, doctors in the public health sector have a telephonic service where they receive ICAS to get counselling from a professional. “Currently in Joburg, we don’t have that but the paediatrics department at Wits organizes monthly debriefing sessions where we meet as doctors. On a regular basis, we don’t really get mental health care support and that’s something we really struggle with, however, I have an amazing partner, who I can talk to,” she says.
Babies are affected too
A few paediatricians have been hospitalised, due to COVID-19 as a result of children. “This is from us not even knowing that a child has COVID-19. We’re starting to see respiratory illnesses from children around this time of the year. We’ve been putting masks on the children and their parents too until we have confirmed results,” says Dr.Balfour.
A message to the public…
Dr. Balfour says it’s so easy for us as humans to be blind to things we cannot see. It’s important that we follow the rules that the government has set in place. Our public healthcare sector can’t accommodate more people in hospitals should our numbers increase.
It’s very easy to not stick to the rules if you can’t see how overworked the healthcare system is. “If a family member dies from COVID-19, you won’t be able to see them or attend a funeral, because nobody knows how long the virus in the body,” she says sternly.
Things to do to prevent the spread of the virus:
- Stay at home and social distance! COVID-19 thrives when people gather. By staying at home, we prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
- Cover your mouth with an elbow and not your hands when coughing or sneezing.
- Wash your hands regularly.
- If you’re sick and have Coronavirus symptoms, consult your doctor.
“On a positive note, I’ve seen a beautiful sense of humanity from this pandemic. People have been helping one another out, people are more patient. The food drives to disadvantaged communities and populations has been really good to see,” says Dr. Balfour.