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International Nurses Day: Working during COVID-19 is ‘emotional, scary and challenging’

Written by Nompilo Gwala

On International Nurses Day, Health-e News spoke to three local nurses, about their experiences and the challenges of nursing during the pandemic and surviving COVID-19.

“It has been quite emotional, scary and challenging as I never thought I would live in an era where such a dark pandemic occurred,” Lerisce Reddy, an enrolled nurse.

She and other nurses shared their experiences with Health-e News to mark International Nurses Day on May 12. The day commemorates the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, the founder of the nursing profession. As Nightingale nursed during a war in the 19th century, this year nurses found themselves on the frontline of a global pandemic.

Reddy was one of the thousands of nurses who wrapped themselves in personal protective equipment and worked in a COVID-19 ward in a KwaZulu-Natal private hospital.

“I, being an asthmatic, felt very afraid of the ‘unknown’ as well as the days where some shifts were heading into the darkness of death,” said the 26-year-old. “Witnessing one life after the other slip away like it has no time nor value. The experience was traumatic.”

Nurses on the frontline

It has been over a year since the first COVID-19 case was recorded in South Africa. Since then, nearly 55,000 people have died and nearly 1,6 million cases have been recorded. The global pandemic has shown the world that nurses, as the largest healthcare profession, play a vital role. During the pandemic, they have served on the frontlines.

As a young nurse and a newly-wed, Reddy’s biggest worry came true when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. Reddy was one of over 27 000 nurses who tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020 in South Africa.

“I was quite deeply emotional and worried about my husband as we are newly-weds and an added strain of worrying about my parents as they have chronic illnesses.”

Bongiwe Hlongwana, a child nursing specialist working at GJ Crookes Hospital in Scottburgh, said that working during the pandemic was the scariest time in her life.

“Working during the pandemic was the most scariest thing ever because we got to experience the most difficult moment in our life. We saw a lot of people dying and we also lost colleagues and relatives that we could not bury. It was a very scary moment. It is something that I have never experienced in my life,” she said.

Nurses not given a voice

The theme for this year’s International Nurses Day is Nurses: A Voice to Lead – A vision for future Healthcare. According to the International Council of Nurses (ICN), it reflects on the impact of COVID-19 on the health system, the nursing profession and the future of the health system and nursing.

Yet, despite the importance of nurse during the pandemic, and the resilience many showed in the face of COVID-19, some nurses say their voices are still not heard in the health industry.

“It’s a daily struggle. We’re seen as the doers, not the decision makers and its a sad reality as we are the ones with the most patient contact,” said Lorraine Pillay, a nurse who worked in a government hospital prior to taking a break from nursing.

Pillay, 40,  said that her biggest challenge she faced was deciding during the pandemic to take care of her family. She left the facility she was working at after having a baby.

“Being kept safe at home was difficult. There were days I had wanted to return to the frontline, give the tired nurses and doctors a boost, assist where I could but it was not possible. I had to send messages of hope and encouragement instead,” she added.

Love for nursing

Although the pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster for healthcare workers, these nurses still believe that nursing is their destiny

“Nursing is a work of art. It is an art of passion, devotion, time, unconditional love and care. Becoming a nurse is always going to be a true reflection of your inner self in all that you do and say,” Reddy reflected.

Hlongwana added that the pandemic has taught her some lessons about nursing.

“The lesson I learnt from the pandemic is being kind, being empathetic, being understanding, being a voice of reason, being a nurturer, being someone who will bring hope to the hopeless, being a defender, being everything a patient wants you to be right there in that moment,” she said.

Quality nursing

The South African Nursing Council (SANC) Registrar and CEO Sizo Mchunu said that the organisation is committed to assist with producing proficient nurses.

“As the statutory body, the SANC is committed to assist in ensuring production of competent nurse practitioners who will provide scientific, comprehensive, and quality nursing to patients, families and communities within the legal and ethical framework,” Mchunu said.

She continued: “It is vital that the country trains enough nurse practitioners to replace those retiring so that the country continues to deliver quality care.”

SANC saluted all nurses who, despite daily challenges, always put the lives of patients first.—Health-e News

About the author

Nompilo Gwala