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Teamwork made it possible for staff at Empilisweni Clinic in Zweletemba, Worcester, to keep delivering services during the pandemic despite nine of the clinic’s staff members contracting coronavirus in the height of the pandemic…

They also lost a staff member due to COVID-19. Western Cape Government Health recognises the team as Rural Heroes for their tenacity in the face of the pandemic and for continuing to serve the community.

“This team really has each other’s backs,” says Sr Elsie Engelbrecht, the Operational Manager at Empilisweni Clinic.

Many of the staff have close relationships due to working together for years. There is also a culture of actively looking for reasons to celebrate each other’s personal joys and milestones. Engelbrecht believes this is one of the reasons why staff could do what was necessary to keep serving the public despite COVID-19’s impact on the team themselves, as well as the challenge of social distancing.

“Everyone jumped in to help where they could. Everyone took initiative and filled in so that we could keep rendering services,” says Engelbrecht proudly. To keep staff motivated, leave was approved where due, as far as possible. Anxieties were also reduced by quickly responding to sanitise an area when staff reported that they think they may have COVID-19 or that they were in consultation with someone who may have COVID-19. Staff were provided with sufficient PPE, as well as regular training in the correct use of PPE.

Pharmacist Charmaine Thiart

Overcome with emotion

When Engelbrecht got word of the passing of a staff member who had COVID-19, she called on the Breede Valley Subdistrict Manager to help to break the news to the rest of the team, as she was overcome with emotion.

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Being together face to face and taking a moment to light a candle at a framed picture of their colleague gave some relief despite social distancing and wearing masks. Afterwards they shared memories on the staff WhatsApp group and they arranged an intimate memorial service.

“It has been difficult to keep focused and not go to the ‘worst case scenario’ when you hear another colleague has COVID-19,” says Ms Charmaine Thiart, a Pharmacist at Empilisweni, who is back on the job after recovering from COVID-19. “The first time when someone tested positive, it was a shock. Then there was a second one… We saw people recovering and returning to work, which made it better,” explains Charmaine.

The clinic made several changes to limit the risk of infection

Charmaine says that taking lunch in smaller groups at different times of the day is one of the arrangements that helped them to experience a sense of unity during the pandemic while maintaining their distance.

Staff nurse Phelisa Mtwazi, also a COVID-19 survivor, says what makes COVID-19 difficult and scary, is that everyone experiences it differently. While Thiart experienced sinusitis and headaches, Phelisa mostly had back pain. “But COVID-19 is real!” warns Phelisa.

Charmaine and Phelisa say that while they were sick, colleagues checked in through messages, but were mindful not to disturb them too much. They did not experience anyone treating them differently when they started working again.

True to Empilisweni Clinic’s culture of celebration, staff decided to surprise Sr. Sonja Lombard with a farewell lunch just before she retired. They added more sparkle to the day by participating in the Jerusalema dance challenge and having a guard of honour for COVID-19 survivors among them.

“One thing we take forward is that you have to stand together. You have to be consistent and honest. Initially there were anxieties among the staff; that is understandable. Now everyone takes it in their stride. We remain cautious and vigilant, but anxiety does not get the best of us. We are here to serve our patients,” says Elsie.

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