COVID-19 patients often die without family or loved ones by their side. However, they are not entirely alone. People like nurse Anthea Willemse console them in their final hour.
At Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, 50-year-old Willemse has worked at the same Intensive Care Unit (ICU) ward for 25 years. It was converted to accommodate COVID-19 patients in March, and its capacity swelled from eight beds to 48. A month ago, as the epidemic peaked in the Western Cape, up to five bodies were removed from the ward each day.
Willemse touch patients nearing their end with her latex gloves, read to them from her Afrikaans Bible – Psalm 23 – and sometimes sings songs of worship to them. Often she lies to them because she doesn’t have much choice. She tells them everything will be okay.
“Some days tears were just flowing over my cheeks,” she says. “I realised life is so short. And the fact that these patients are passing away, the fact that there’s no visiting hours, that there is no opportunity for their families and loved ones to say goodbye. These people leave this world alone, you know. Just with us, people they don’t know – strangers. And sometimes you see how afraid they are. You look in their eyes and you see how uncertain they are, you know.”
Willemse says patients would often ask her what will happen.
“What can we tell them? I just say to them everything is going to be fine. Even though I know it probably won’t be. In a way, I have to lie to these patients. I am not a liar, but I have no choice.”
Rain is pelting outside as Willemse speaks to Spotlight telephonically at 9 in the evening. Her 12-hour shift ended at 7, after which she showered at the hospital. Then she drove her Polo the thirty minutes to her home in Mitchells Plain.
Usually her two daughters aged 30 and 22 don’t cook for her because they prefer their mummy’s food. But this evening they treated her to mutton stew, says Willemse. She also has a son aged 13, and two toddler grandchildren.
Willemse is the family’s breadwinner.
Speaking to Spotlight, her sentences are punctuated with endearments, including “my darling” and “my liefie” (my love).
“The thing is, this virus, it’s so quick,” says Willemse. “You do the observations now. And I mean, literally, you just turn your back. Maybe [you go to] have tea [or] go to the toilet. And when you come back, you see that the patient is wrapped.” Willemse says one is left wondering what just happened.
“Some of t