Dr Keitumetsi Lucy Sothoane is a young doctor living in South Africa and working in the country’s biggest hospital, the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital — which is also one of the biggest hospitals in the Southern hemisphere.
She was among the first people in South Africa to receive her COVID-19 vaccine, as the country prioritised health care workers when it began its vaccine rollout in February.
Here, Sothoane reflects on her past year as a health care worker fighting to control the pandemic in South Africa — which has seen more than 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 50,000 recorded deaths — and why she was so eager to receive her vaccine as soon as she had the chance.
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It has been over a year since the first coronavirus case was reported in South Africa, and there’s still so much uncertainty about what lies ahead of us as a nation.
Apart from the disruption of social norms, this pandemic has unmasked and brought forward new challenges as to how we are to manage infectious diseases and other health issues.
Despite it having caused a global health crisis, with billions of us facing the same health worries for the first time in decades, it has also brought immense and devastating long-term economic challenges.
Unfortunately, we have to come to terms with this new normal, and the fact that this virus will remain a part of our lives until we reach our vaccination goals.
I think I speak for all health care workers when I say that this past year has been emotionally and physically exhausting. I never would have imagined that I would have to be on the front lines of managing a global pandemic in this lifetime, especially in this country.
Our biggest worry as health care workers was the impact of the virus on our already understaffed, overburdened, overwhelmed, and resource-limited public health care system. The public health care sector alone looks after just over 80% of the country’s population of 58 million.
In the past year during this pandemic, I have worked in two public hospitals in Gauteng, one being a regional hospital and the other being a tertiary hospital — the biggest and busiest hospital in Africa.
I’ve been managing COVID-19 PUIs (persons under investigation) and positive patients, in addition to their other medical comorbidities, as part of working in the Internal Medicine department. This included patients who were intubated and on ventilators, those who needed other non-invasive ventilatory support, and, on most days, more stable patients in the wards.
It was because of this exposure to the virus that health care workers like myself were made priority for the vaccine as soon as it arrived in the country. I’ve considered myself blessed to work with a team of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals with so much experience, who advocate for practicing evidence-based medicine and are fully committed to giving patients the proper care they need.
I was born and raised in the South Western Township, also known as Soweto, in Johannesburg, and from early on in my childhood, I knew I was called into a life of serving and working with people. I initially wanted to be a nurse or a school teacher, until in high school I developed a tremendous interest in cell biology and genetics.
I hold a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of the Witwatersrand, with a double major in Genetics, Human, and Developmental Biology, and Human Physiology. It was during the second year of my first degree where my fascination with the human body compelled me to pursue a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree the following year from the same institution.
I had ultimately combined my passion for science with that of my desire to make a tangible and immediate difference to society.
I’m currently working as a medical officer in the Internal Medicine department at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital with hopes of becoming a specialist physician, and to also pursue a career in molecular medical research and academic medicine.
During this pandemic, my strong sentiments about the importance of understanding the human body at a molecular level through medical research have been validated, with this being so important in the development of medical treatments and interventions such as vaccinations.
While we had half of the country standing behind us, being supportive and thanking us for our efforts, there was the other half who met us with great hostility. I believe this was largely due to the misinformation about the virus, not knowing the protocols and evidence-based medicine we were employing to manage our patients, and what was truly transpiring on the ground in terms of the burden of the disease on our health care system.
This virus was also so brutal in the sense that patients were rapidly dying within minutes or days of presenting to the hospital because of the severity of their disease, which they and their family members were not aware of.
I have been fortunate to have not contracted the virus in my time of serving, and by that I mean I had not had any symptoms or any COVID-19 tests that came back positive.
However, when I found out that we were to have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine available for administration — which had a higher efficacy to prevent severe disease and death — I jumped at the opportunity to get vaccinated.
Not only was I choosing to get vaccinated because I was a health care worker who was at risk of contracting the virus, and to lead by example to the general population, but because I had the correct information about vaccines at my disposal to make an informed consent about receiving it — which is paramount to this rollout and to having as many people vaccinated as possible.
The coronavirus vaccine decreases the burden of the disease to our country’s health care system, communities, and families.
If you think about it, we’ve all been vaccinated at some point in our lives, since birth, without any hesitancy and this is not any different.
Although these COVID-19 vaccines took a much shorter time to develop due to the urgency, and information and technological advances we did not have 50 years ago, there’s still ongoing evidence which renders them extremely beneficial.
They are not aimed to kill or to control the population as falsely conveyed by numerous sources, and this misinformation hinders us from making progress in slowing down transmission or eradicating the disease. It’s important to remember that if a high percentage of people get vaccinated, it is then difficult for the disease to spread, which is what we need.
Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital was extremely organised when it came to educating the staff about the vaccine and how the rollout was going to work. This was done through webinars and small group discussions. There were different stakeholders who came from different health disciplines who ensured that the rollout system ran efficiently.
I received my single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Feb. 18, 2021. The atmosphere at the vaccination centre was filled with so much excitement and jubilation. It was amazing to witness. We had all been waiting so long for that moment.
The entire proceedings on the day of the vaccination, including on-site registration, took no more than 30 minutes as it was appointment-based through an internal arrangement system initially.
Prior to getting vaccinated, I was well informed of what to expect from my body as a response to the vaccine. The day after was very hard for me; I had severe fever, chills, muscle pains, joint pains, and headaches. These were merely symptoms of an immune system that was triggered, and this was how I knew my body was already working to build immunity. All my symptoms had completely resolved within two days.
What I wish for the general public to know is that we’re all fighting a common enemy, one that we’re all still learning about, and we need to remain vigilant.
Vaccines are an important health intervention in decreasing the spread of the disease (and thus lowering the number of people affected by the disease) and decreasing mortality.
What I hope to see in this country is for the government to put the needs of its people that it serves first — to implement better health policies, to disseminate full and accurate information to the public, and to implement an efficient vaccine rollout for everyone, especially to the most vulnerable populations.
Lastly, and also most importantly, I hope South Africa will not take for granted the people who wake up every day and leave their families behind, risking their lives to care for those affected by the virus.
Disclosure: Johnson & Johnson is a partner of Global Citizen.
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