South Africa: Covid-19 - What It Is Like Being a Student Volunteer

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 a year ago, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Stellenbosch Jessica Wolf has been hard at work volunteering at the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. It is something that brings joy to her heart, Wolf says, and she would not trade the experience for anything.

Speaking to Spotlight, Wolf says the combination of science, skill, and human interaction has always attracted her to medicine. "I love to help and serve others and be the one that you would trust to take care of your sick, beloved family member or friend. When Stellenbosch University contacted us and offered opportunities to volunteer, I felt so honoured to help as much as I can as a student. So many nurses and doctors offer their time, energy, and health, and therefore, every bit that I can do to help is really the least I can do," she says.

Initially, there was a bit of confusion about what the student volunteers could best help with, but she says the system is improving day by day.

Western Cape Provincial Health Department spokesperson Mark van der Heever explains that volunteers are managed, and that their roles are determined by the unit managers at the hospitals where they volunteer. He says interested parties were asked to apply online via the Voluntary Information Management System (VIMS) and were assigned based on requests from hospitals.

"Students were kept out of the COVID-19 wards," says Professor Helmuth Reuter, Acting Executive Head of the Department of Medicine at the University of Stellenbosch. "In other wards students are involved in aspects of patient care such as performance of diagnostic tests such as blood pressure monitoring, checking Haemoglobin-Oxygen saturations and if trained to do so, also taking blood. In principle, students were asked not to do this in COVID-19 wards. Students did help out in the so-called "non-COVID" or "low-risk COVID" wards." Students also participated in screening procedures, assisted with contact tracing, and helped out at the call centre.

The student volunteers were real heroes, an invaluable resource, and a much-needed and appreciated commodity, says Reuter.

About 360 students volunteered at Tygerberg Hospital.

Playing one's part

Student nurse Nokubonga Ngeyi says said she grabbed the opportunity to volunteer at Tygerberg Hospital with both hands as she wanted to play her part in assisting during the pandemic.

"I remember how this virus was all a joke when we first heard about it. Everyone was saying it will never reach South Africa. But when the government announced the first case, and the virus started spreading like wildfire, we were all astonished. The worst part is that the COVID-19 affected all of us - everyone has a story to tell. Personally, I've lost some close relatives and had people I know test positive for COVID-19. As a country we've been to hell and back," she says.

Ngeyi, who is doing a nursing diploma at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), says she doesn't know how she overcame her fears, especially after testing positive for COVID-19 herself. "After showing the signs like constant coughs and shortness of breath last year, my worst fears were confirmed after testing positive. But I told myself that I would defeat this virus. I stayed at home and adhered to the regulations. Indeed, I was grateful to have conquered it," she says. Ngeyi doesn't know where she contracted the virus.

She says her duties include helping the nurses while tending to a patient and also administering medicine to patients. And, although the hours can be long, she says the interaction with patients and getting their positive responses to her work is priceless. "The patients know you by name and the elderly ones always give you blessings when it is time for them to get discharged. Listening to them tell you how much you've helped in their recovery journey is always rewarding," says Ngeyi.

You have to decide for yourself

"I believe no medical student should be forced to assist in the pandemic," says Wolf. "The circumstances for each student are different and need to be taken into account. The best person to decide whether they are ready to help is probably the person themselves. Students that are high-risk individuals or that have close contact with other high-risk persons might not want to physically expose themselves to the virus any more than necessary. Furthermore, our studies are continuing and every person needs to decide for themselves how much extra responsibility they can and want to take up."

"I made sure that I don't put my family at risk by not staying at home with them while I am volunteering in hospital," she says. "Of course my parents were a bit worried, as most parents would be. But I am very grateful for all their support, for understanding the current circumstances and backing me when I try to help wherever possible."

She also had her own fears. To overcome this, Wolf says it was crucial for her to educate herself with facts from reliable sources. "I read a lot, I attended COVID-19 webinars and learnt from the doctors and professors at the university. Trusting the experts' advice, I then wanted to lead by example."

Atmosphere of hope and excitement

"The atmosphere is one of hope and excitement," Wolf says, referring to COVID-19 vaccinations being done at Tygerberg Hospital. "Everybody here seems to really enjoy the impact we're making and people are very excited to be getting the vaccine."

As someone who has been vaccinated, Wolf has a message to anyone who does not want to take the vaccine? "Just think of getting severe COVID yourself, spreading it to a loved one and seeing them die of it," she says. "Getting the vaccine is something very small that you are doing and it can prevent the suffering and deaths of many thousands of people."

Ngeyi says she has registered to be vaccinated and is eagerly awaiting her turn to get the jab.

"I cannot wait. People shouldn't be scared to get vaccinated because it is for their own good. Our president led by example and got vaccinated in front of the whole nation. If we all get vaccinated, this virus will be history within no time. And, besides, we've been getting vaccines since birth, so I don't know why people are so skeptical," she says.

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