One patient after the other, day after day, heath care workers on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic have endured the physical exhaustion and emotional turmoil of the massive fight that is still continuing. As most of us self-isolate at home, nurses are busy in the forefront risking their lives and of their families as well, working hard to help control the pandemic that is still raging.

Even as lockdown restrictions are eased, both in the UAE and globally, their efforts continue under immense pressures as they adapt as best as they can. And it’s an overwhelming battle – intubating patients, calming them down, reminding them that a positive diagnosis is not a death sentence, managing their conditions and concerns, all the while remaining brave and holding the virus at bay. From the tears that come with untimely loss, to the joys of seeing someone walk out of hospital completely cured, three nurses in the UAE shared their joys and fears with us. Here are their stories:

I’m proud to be a nurse

Deepa Varghese, 38, critical care nurse, Medcare Hospital, Al Safa

In her role battling the coronavirus in the UAE, Deepa spends close to 12 hours a day in the hospital as a team leader either in the morning or the evening shift

As a critical care nurse, part of Deepa’s morning is spent donning her PPE, assessing narcotics, standard ICU procedures and getting a handover from the nurse in her earlier shift, before heading to patients’ sides. “It’s all about teamwork,” says Deepa. “As part of the nurses team, we work together getting and giving breaks to other nurses, relieving each other every two hours, so one does not have to wear PPE for an extended period of time and thereby exhaust ourselves.”

But along with all those immense tasks is an equally gruelling one she faces daily when she heads home: explaining to her kids why they can’t come close to her to greet her after work, as they have done every day.

Deepa started her journey as a nurse 18 years ago in India, continued it in Saudi Arabia, got married and moved to the UAE, where she has now been a nurse for 10 years. She says it is the satisfaction of healing patients, getting someone off the ventilator and discharged, that gives her the greatest joy in the profession. “I really can’t express the joy I feel on seeing a person who was admitted as a patient walk out of the hospital completely cured of his illness. It is more so now – as a frontline worker during this critical situation. This also makes me proud,” she says.

In her role battling the coronavirus in the UAE, the Indian nurse spends close to 12 hours a day in the hospital working as a team leader either in the morning or the evening shift. Her two children – an 11-year-old son and six-year-old daughter – are distance-learning at home and look forward to giving her a hug when she returns home after her shift – but Deepa can’t get too close to them immediately on arrival.

“This was initially very difficult for my daughter as she was so used to come running to the door to hug me, but I made it clear to them that I have to take a shower before I can touch them or even get close to them.”

It was change that was not easy for the little girl to accept and she would make her displeasure and disappointment clear. “Gradually my husband and I have got them to understand the situation,” says Deepa, who adds that the children do not like listening to “any hospital stories I’m sharing with my husband and ask me to stop recounting immediately.”

Even after a shower, Deepa, believing that prevention is better than cure, doesn’t allow her children to get too close to her. “I take a lot of Vitamin C, do steam inhalation every day, and adhere to physical distancing guidelines,” she says.

From coaching patients on the use of the breathing support machines to assuring terrified Covid-19 patients that they could pull through if they follow the prescribed guidelines, Deepa has her hands full every day.

The heart-breaking stories exist with the heart-warming ones, and she has had to hold back countless tears. An especially painful one for her was of a young woman who passed away due to underlying causes. “She succumbed after a week of ventilation; it was not her age to go from this world.”

Deepa says her husband has been a huge support, while her young son and daughter are gradually understanding the precautions she has to take at home

Deepa acknowledges that she does experience lows at such times, “but most of our patients improve and get cured, and it’s a great feeling to see them leave. One that stood out for me was an RTA bus driver last week. He had severe breathing trouble, and had pretty much lost hope when he came in. Having no family or close friends here to emotionally support him through this trying period was tough, but we are there for such people. He remained on the ventilator for a couple of days, and got better soon. To see him walking out of the hospital cured and in good health reminded me again why I continue to love this profession.”

While Deepa stresses on staying at home and donning masks and gloves if you have to step out, she says the main aspect UAE residents need to remember is that a positive diagnosis is not a death sentence. “You don’t have to fight it alone, you have nurses and health care professionals by your side. Most of the patients I treat who have been isolated believed that it’s all over for them and that they would not be able to come out of this. But remember you have a medical team fighting for you.”

She also considers it important that Covid-19 patients not bring their relatives to hospital. “It works best for everyone if we inform them about progress over the phone. They’ll also get regular updates from doctors, so they remain safe away from the epicentre of infection.”

The mother of two says she couldn’t have done it without her husband’s backing. “Instead of panicking when I told him I would be around coronavirus patients all day, he said it was great that I was part of the frontline staff, and that I got to do my bit for the world. He was and is a huge support.”

That said, it wasn’t as easy convincing her parents in India. “They were very worried, and every day would ask me if I was making sure to not get too close to the kids. I talk to them a lot to assuage their concerns. Now it’s been two months and they’re slowly coming around; they know I take all the precautions to keep my family and myself safe.

“Initially, I too was a bit scared about the uncertainty of it all, but now have come to a point of acceptance. There is no choice but to deal with it. This is happening, and it might be a nightmare, but we have to deal with it.”

The way to deal with fear is to gain knowledge and empower yourself

Khaya Msimango, nursing head, Right Health Group of Clinics, Dubai

Khaya arrived in Dubai in August after eight years in Oman. Since the pandemic began, she has been working to test for suspected cases of Covid-19 that are referred by the DHA

Khaya qualified as a nurse when HIV/Aids-related deaths were at its peak in her home country, South Africa. “The first year [after I graduated] I worked in a ward of HIV positive patients with just gloves. I did not have goggles or full-body wear. At that time I thought pandemics can only get as big as HIV or Aids. I never thought there’d be a coronavirus pandemic and one day I’d have to do swabbing, wearing PPE similar to what I’d seen on TV.”

Having had no one in the family work in health care, Khaya terms nursing a calling, not a career. “I didn’t grow up seeing any nurses working around me. The idea of being able to help people and support them, take them from a state where they’re not healthy, being with them all the while and getting them healthy again – I knew that was the journey I wanted to go on.”

Khaya came to Dubai in August last year having spent eight years in Oman before that. Since the pandemic began, she has been working to test for suspected cases of Covid-19 that are referred by the DHA.

Khaya remembers grappling with hours of worry the night before she was to start performing the tests for the first time. “I kept wondering what I’d do – about my medical insurance, which hospital I’d go to if I got infected, who I’d call as I was alone here. What eventually helped me through was thinking of my team. The clinic has facilities all over the UAE, and I work as chief. I knew if I was scared and chose not to go in, the nurses at the clinic would be scared too. And the way to deal with fear is to gain knowledge and empower yourself. So when I saw the number of recoveries increasing, and followed updated guidelines, the fear dissolved.”

That said, it never fully goes away. Khaya, who is in her mid-30s, says it “comes back when you’re asking the person in front of you to remove their mask so you can take a nasal swab, and they sneeze. A million thoughts run through your mind then and I have to remind myself I have a face shield and mask on.’

The challenges are less physical and more mental for her. Even with all the equipment she has to don all day, Khaya says a greater task is the mental prep every morning. “As much as I have a passion to help, there are lots of questions – shoulda, woulda, coulda, my family, what the possibilities are if I get tested positive, what if I get really sick. And to better prepare myself at the start of every day I always go back to remembering why I started nursing.”

Khaya then catches up on the latest government guidelines for control and prevention, how many cases there are, what the international guidelines are for protecting both her and the nurses in her team, arranging everything needed to go to the field: “hand sanitiser, gloves, gowns, face mask, the body suit. Most importantly, the N95 mask.”

Khaya’s fiancé was supposed to join her in the UAE in March. "We were meant to be married this year, then Covid arrived”

The team is flooded with calls in the mornings. “The DHA will have a list and say these many people need to be tested in some part of Dubai. It’s then time to look at logistics: do we have enough PPE, enough nurses, is there a doctor around, what happens if somebody is sick, is there an ambulance, or is Dubai Police around. Then driving to the testing venue and making sure the staff is calm, reassuring everybody. Then checking if those to be tested are settled, calm and know what they have to do so that both we and they are protected.”

Depending on the number of people to be tested, she works from 10am to about 5pm. “To adhere by social distancing we cannot have crowds, so people come in by appointment.”

Khaya says a lot of people arrive scared, “and when they see something is going to be put down their nostril, they become more scared. I help calm them down, but similarly I have expectations of them – to put on a mask and maintain social distance. They need to understand the person doing the test also needs to be protected.”

The pandemic also derailed her wedding. Khaya’s fiancé was meant to join her in the UAE in March “and we were meant to be married this year, then Covid arrived.” But Khaya looks at it as an advantage, “because when I go home there’s no chance of infecting family members, and I’m grateful for that. But I have friends whom I haven’t met since we were told to isolate, and it does get lonely.”

She says her parents and siblings in South Africa go through a rollercoaster of emotions daily too, from anxiety and nervousness, and constantly advise Khaya to take precautions, asking her to get on the next flight back home and insisting she doesn’t need the job. “I reassure them, send them pictures of myself, and have constant communication to comfort them.”

Khaya says even though her fiancé isn’t in health care, he still manages an equivalent level of support. “He understands nursing is a calling. The fact that he is not panicking has made it a lot easier on me.”

At the end of the day, Khaya goes home directly from the testing centre so she doesn’t risk exposing anybody else. “I immediately put my clothes in the washing machine at a high temperature of 63-degree-celsius. I limit moving around the apartment with soiled clothes, until I shower. My car goes through a lot of wiping down too. And I ensure my mask is disposed of properly as medical waste. The PPE I leave in the clinic, it goes with medical waste.”

Khaya says it was a recent instance where she was conducting tests that made her feel it was all worth it. “The people who come there are workers – a population who don’t have access to fancy places, and are in need and really scared. Giving them relevant information, equipping them with the facts to stay calm, giving them a number to call – that calms them and makes me feel fulfilled.”

She says the bigger picture helps. “Remembering that we are part of a bigger team, not just our healthcare group, but part of the Dubai team, part of the UAE team, part of the GCC team, one international team of healthcare workers playing an important role in this. Being able to give to the vulnerable, and walking away knowing that someone’s life has been changed somewhat because I gave – that’s really what it’s all about.”

As there’s no cure yet, you have to protect yourself

Jade Muller Chirwa, nurse for Covid project with Right Health Group Clinic

Jade, who's only been in the UAE two months, works on the field testing workers for the coronavirus

Jade says he always knew he’d do something to help people, but never thought it’d be on this scale and would come in the form of a devastating pandemic.

Jade has only been in the UAE two months, was in South Africa for six years before that, and his hometown Zimbabwe prior to that. Growing up, the 22-year-old says his mum used to call him a caregiver, “and when she left us to go to the UK when I was 12, I kept remembering her words. I wanted to make her proud, so decided to follow through on her words and become a caregiver.” Knowing the risks he faces every day, Jade's dad in Zimbabwe has also been constantly reminding him of staying safe.

Working on the field testing workers for the coronavirus in the UAE, Jade says his days now start and end in a haze of sanitising sprays that you can plug in, and a hand sanitiser every five minutes as he tests to avoid getting and spreading risk of contamination. Then there’s the fatigue that comes with donning PPE for 12 hours daily. It’s stressful and draining, but his belief that he can make a difference keeps him going and helps him to be brave in the face of the pandemic. “Plus we’re all in it and my team helps me; we’re all facing this fear and going through each day. And the thanks I get from people after they are better, I value that. I do my best for it, so it means a lot to me.”

Jade says a huge part of his job is dealing with people who are so afraid of having the virus they are terrified of even the test, and helping them calm down. “I tell them that if they have information on how to protect themselves they can keep themselves calm through it all. Then I proceed to give them the information. In return, I expect as the law expects – for them to maintain distance, wear gloves and masks and follow other guidelines issued by the authorities.”

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Jade lives with his brother and sister-in-law, but strictly maintains the social distancing protocol prescribed. “Most of the time now I go home, bathe and then just go to my room. I don’t want them to feel as if I’m not protecting them. We last ate dinner together about a month ago, I have long shifts and by the time I return they’d have eaten and my food will be waiting for me.”

Jade calls on residents to remember that their immune system is the best line of defence at the moment. “Not that our labs have failed us, but as there’s no cure yet, you have to protect yourself. Eat healthy, sanitise a lot and take yourself away from public spaces. And if you’re infected you have to protect yourself even more because your body is the only thing that can defend you now.”

The nurse says he’s grown much mentally through the pandemic. “I never thought I’d have to be in the frontline of something deadly, something people were so scared of, and I refuse to be held back by something people worry about. I’ve now done things I thought were impossible for me, always safe in the knowledge there’s someone beside me and I don’t have to do it alone. I’m so thankful to those who’ve supported medical professionals through what we do. There’s always a better picture behind the best picture, so I live with the optimism that this will end soon.”

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