Behind the mask: Nasrec nurse offers glimpse of life and hope in isolation

Behind the mask: Nasrec nurse offers glimpse of life and hope in isolationCynthia Zondi walks the halls of the Nasrec facility with a smile, even if you can't see it behind her mask (Jamaine Krige)

The Nasrec field hospital was built to isolate people with Covid-19 infections. Inside, a team of healthcare workers and patients have become something of a temporary family, writes Jamaine Krige.

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Cynthia Zondi walks from cubicle to cubicle, bed to bed, greeting masked patients by name. She’s covered from head to toe in protective equipment, from a hairnet to surgical shoe covers. Her face is hidden behind a mask and a face shield, but her voice is warm. She brings a smile to the faces of her patients.

Zondi is one of 58 nurses working in the Covid-19 Isolation and Quarantine Centre at Nasrec field hospital. The centre was assembled at the Johannesburg expo and conference centre as the novel coronavirus wrought havoc on health facilities around the world. She has provided care to its temporary residents since the facility opened on 15 June.

She talks as she walks, her blue surgical gown swishing around her legs as she navigates the hallways of the makeshift medical facility. It feels like a lifetime ago when they first opened for business. On their first day, they had only one admission. “That person was so scared and our main job was to reassure them that we could help,” Zondi explains.

Preparing for the spike

Slowly the beds began to fill up. The surge of cases that Cynthia and her colleagues had prepared for has, however, not yet materialised. “We started to see more people, and that was good, but what was even better was that a lot of people were going home.”

Zondi remembers the excitement at their first discharge, 14 days after their doors opened. It was overwhelming. Staff lined the hallways and applauded as the patient left. They knew then that there was hope.

By the middle of August, more than 570 people have been quarantined or isolated at Nasrec. At least 70 people received intermediate care in the section that provides  supplemental oxygen.

Healing in solidarity

The solidarity between residents and staff helps facilitate healing, Zondi believes.

“Most of the time the people are quarantined alone at home and they don’t know what’s happening in the world or in their bodies. But when they come here, they see others like them. They’re surrounded by people who are trained and know what to do.”

She nods at the doctors huddled over patient charts as she passes one of the nursing stations. “It helps to see this is not only their problem, that there are others. It helps to see people go home and know they can survive.”

Inside Nasrec Covid facility
Elsie Bantom is grateful for Zondi and her colleagues (Jamiane Krige)

Help is available

The nurse wants those who test positive for Covid-19 to realise that help is available. It’s also why Zondi chose to become a nurse. As a young girl growing up in Ncwadi near Pietermaritzburg, she knew what her calling was.

“In the rural area where I come from there was no doctor and no nurse, with little access to healthcare you get used to seeing people suffer.”

This hit home when she was 14 years old.

“One day my grandmother was so sick. She had shortness of breath but back then I didn’t know what it was called, I just knew that she was not well. We went knocking from door to door until we finally found a car to take her to hospital, but it was too late.”

She knew then that she never wanted others to feel as helpless as she did. “I was so young and so scared. It could have ended differently if someone was just able to help her.”

“Excellent” survivors

Zondi quickly shakes off the sombre recollection  as she enters one of the cubicles. A woman is sitting on the bed wearing a nightgown and slippers, and her eyes crinkle as she smiles at Cynthia from behind a cloth mask. Seventy-year old Elsie Bantom was admitted two days ago and is still short of breath. Not that this stops her from lively conversation with Sister Zondi.

“You remember when I came here and the nurse told me I’m a survivor?” Zondi nods as she performs a finger-prick glucose test to make sure Elsie’s diabetes is under control. “You know, I’ve been lying here thinking and, you know I almost died?” Her eyes widen as she recalls her weeks of hospitalisation.

“But that means I’m not just a survivor; I’m an excellent survivor,” Bantom beams from behind her mask.

“I think about the people who have been looking after us, the cleaners and the nurses and the doctors, and I know God separated them from the rest, especially for a time such as this,” Bantam says, her sentences breaking up as she struggles breath between words.

“When I got sick I was so confused, I couldn’t even think for myself. But, by the grace of God I’m sitting here today surrounded by these beautiful people, each one handpicked and set aside especially to look after us. And for that, and for the fact that I can breathe today, I can only give thanks,” she says, her eyes welling up with tears.

Inside Nasrec Covid facility
Sister Lando returned to work after recovering from Covid-19. (Jamaine Krige)

At the nurse’s station, Zondi stops to help an older nurse adjust her visor that has gone askew.

“This one here is another excellent survivor,” she gestures to her colleague. Nomfundo Lando is 73 years old and only recently returned after a sick leave. She contracted Covid-19 while working at a different site.

Lando came out of retirement when the pandemic hit. Her first assignment was at a repatriation facility, working with quarantined South Africans recently returned from abroad. Next, she worked as a contract tracer, identifying and tracking people who may have been exposed to the virus. After recovering, Lando was determined to go back to work and is one of four retired nurses who survived infection and now work at the field hospital.

Going home

In a cubicle further down a woman dressed in casual clothes is closing her packed bag. Forty-four year old Lulama Willie is going home. She waves her discharge form in the air like a flag and does a little dance when she sees her nurse approaching. “

Is it time?” Zondi asks playfully.

“Yes! Today I’m going home. I’m feeling good. I’m done with my assignment here,” Laughs Willie.“I want to see my kids.”

The pair walk towards an admin station under a large red exit sign. While the clerk finalises the paperwork, Zondi and Willie throw their hands in the air and do a synchronised wiggle – it’s a happy dance.

Inside Nasrec Covid facility
Sister Zondi helps Lulama Willie as she prepares to leave the facility (Jamaine Krige)

“It fills my heart with joy to see someone discharged, having survived what they’ve been through, because, well I guess this corona-thing is new to all of us – to the nurses, the doctors and the people who become infected,” says Zondi. She pauses as  she watches Willie leave.  “To know that so many people are sick and dying and then see someone become healthy and go home makes me so happy.”

Nompulelo Sibiya is the nursing manager at Nasrec. She says her staff strive to give people a home away from home.

“They’ve worked so hard and shown us that nursing really is a calling. It takes a special person to do what Sister Zondi and the others do daily, despite the risks, and that does not go unnoticed,” says Sibiya.

Inside Nasrec Covid facility
Sister Zondi peels off her PPE at the end of her shift (Jamaine Krige)

Making a difference

Zondi believes that she’s making a difference: “I know we are doing important work, and when I see the statistics going down I know it’s worth it.”

In a tent outside the facility, she starts doffing her PPE, one layer after the next. The gown, the protective suit underneath, the hairnets and gloves and shoe covers and face shield, and the surgical mask. Before she leaves the grounds to go home, she’ll change clothes, leaving the contaminated laundry behind.

“It’s nice to be a part of something bigger. One day, many years from now, I’ll be able to tell my children’s children that there was once a pandemic called corona, and I was a part of that.” – Health-e News