Medicine and health sciences students at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Tygerberg Campus did not want to heed the call to return home, when the university announced an early recess in March this year to accommodate ministerial directives around the coronavirus outbreak.
Instead, hundreds of undergraduate students at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) decided to sacrifice their recess to stay and fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
“I wanted to stay and make a difference and help wherever I was able to,” said Cameron Fourie, a second-year medical student who is now working in the Covid-19 tracing centre on the Tygerberg Campus.
Cameron is one of about 360 TygerMaties who volunteered their services in the country’s fight against Covid-19.
“I never ‘decided’ to volunteer. I ‘knew’ I wanted to be there and to help,” explained Elsjé-Marie Geldenhuys, a sixth-year medical student.
“As future healthcare workers it’s in our nature to help – it is who we are.”
Student intern, Sheryl Marshall agreed: “Volunteering was the most natural thing to do. I really felt that I wanted to stay and help – especially when we are facing such a huge health crisis.”
Marshall is helping to care for patients in Tygerberg Hospital’s Internal Medicine ward, which frees up more doctors and nurses to attend to Covid-19 patients.
“The students are doing this of their own volition. The hospital and university never requested assistance, they just took it upon themselves and we are so grateful for their help,” said Dr Suretha Kannenberg, a lecturer in the Division of Dermatology at the FMHS.
She is currently helping to manage volunteer services at the FMHS and Tygerberg Hospital.
The student volunteers are working on numerous fronts and are provided with the necessary training and protective equipment.
They receive a flu vaccination before they are allowed to work in hospital, and are working under the supervision of senior healthcare staff. Currently 70 students are working in Tygerberg Hospital’s Covid-19 screening area.
“They are doing everything from interviewing patients under investigation to administrative tasks,” said Dr Kannenberg.
Another 20 students are screening people at the four main entrances to Tygerberg Hospital and dispensing hand sanitiser.
Fifteen students are working at the Contact Tracing Centre at Tygerberg Campus where they are helping to telephonically trace contacts of positive cases, and another 115 students are assisting at the National Covid-19 Helpline.
In the Internal Medicine wards, 70 students are helping with the day-to-day functioning of the hospital.
“These are senior students doing things like drawing blood and placing drips and other tasks that they would have been performing anyway as part of their clinical training,” Dr Kannenberg explained.
Students are also collecting data and running statistics for the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the FHMS, while others are doing data capturing at the Division of Medical Virology.
“The students have been so professional and so keen to help. With the sudden increase in clinical and administrative duties at the hospital, the students’ assistance has freed up doctors’ and nurses’ hands to be able to perform other lifesaving tasks,” said Kannenberg.
“I thoroughly enjoy being at the forefront and screening the patients who come in at Entrance 5 at Tygerberg Hospital. I feel like this is a way for me to give back to my community,” said Abdul-Baasit Isaacks, a fifth-year medical student.
He admits that volunteering was a risky choice as he has asthma and the coronavirus is notorious for affecting the lungs and causing respiratory problems.
“I am a little scared,” admitted Elsjé-Marie, who is also an asthmatic.
“But volunteering has given me a purpose during this uncertain time and makes me feel part of something bigger than myself.”
“It’s exciting, but also a little scary,” said Sheryl. “Just getting to the hospital is anxiety-provoking.
“There are army people with guns, and I get stopped at least six or seven times to show my permit even before I start work. Also, you know that it’s going to get hectic, but you don’t know when, and you don’t know how it will play out exactly,” Sheryl admitted.
Still, she said, she wouldn’t want it any other way.
“There is an amazing sense of camaraderie in the hospital and it is wonderful to see the students, doctors, nurses, cleaners and just everyone coming together and fighting the pandemic as a team. We really are stronger together.”
“These students from divergent backgrounds are joined by a common sense of purpose: saving lives and improving the quality of life of our people, for the most part, against the odds, commented Professor Wim de Villiers, rector and vice-chancellor.
He added: “The odds of social circumstance characterised by poverty and inequity, of badly equipped medical facilities and poor working conditions, and running the risk of being infected.
“But these students are undeterred and mobilised by the realisation of a sense of both professional and civic duty. They are currently being deployed at the centres of need,” said Professor De Villiers.
“We are so proud of our student volunteers who are turning up in great numbers in the battle against Covid-19 day after day,” said FMHS dean, Professor Jimmy Volmink.
“The courage, commitment, compassion and camaraderie they show in the face of danger and suffering are very inspiring. There is no doubt these students have truly grasped the essence of healthcare as a calling.”
Professor Heike Geduld, head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the FMHS, said: “The feedback I have gotten about the students from the hospital managers, public health specialists and disaster management team has been wonderful.
“Even in the lockdown the students have rallied, they are organised and committed and their attitudes to service has been fantastic,” added Professor Geduld.
“I really am inspired by their commitment, and they make me optimistic about the future of healthcare in South Africa,” she said.