Volunteering at the hospital
‘Here on the Covid ward I feel weak’
Disinfect your hands. Put on the mask. Put on the glasses. The cap. The blue sheer coat, the gloves. Only then can you enter the room. Laura goes through the sequence five or six times a day. But she still checks the diagram every time, just to make sure. Just when she’s about to enter her patient’s room, she feels the coat’s ties on her back come undone. She backs out and checks again.
Laura von Iven (24), a German medical student at the UMCG, knows there is no room for error. She’s hyper-aware of how she, dressed in layers of protective gear, must look to the patients in her care. ‘We must look spooky to them’, she says. Most of the patients on her ward have just come out of the ICU and are already confused about their surroundings: some were put into a coma elsewhere, weeks ago, only to wake up in Groningen and be surrounded by people in protective gear. ‘It makes us all realise how serious this is.’
Stuck at home
Laura was in the middle of her residency in the emergency room of the UMCG when the coronavirus hit. From one day to the next, everything changed. First, her courses were cancelled; a week later the UMCG decided to reduce the number of people circulating in the hospital, starting with the students. From that moment on she was stuck at home.
We know we can’t stop you, you have this helper syndrome
It was strange not to be able to do anything. Ever since her stay in Ghana and South Africa after high school, where she spent ten months volunteering at a school and a hospital, all she wanted to do was to take care of patients.
After two days of sitting at home she applied to the Covid volunteer programme for medical students in the northern provinces to help take swabs from patients for corona testing. Unfortunately, there were more applicants than were needed, so Laura spent the next two weeks killing time. Then, she got an email: the UMCG needed help on the Covid ward.
While she was eager to help, she also had doubts. ‘Because I’d be in close contact with corona patients, I asked my friends and family for input.’ Some of her friends were cautious and told her to really think about the consequences for her housemates. Her housemates, though, understood Laura’s willingness to help. Her parents had a similar attitude. ‘They said: we know we can’t stop you, you have this helper syndrome.’
Laura set one rule for herself: if she ever started having second thoughts, she would quit. Now more convinced than ever that she was doing the right thing, she confirmed.
She spends her day, evening, or night shifts assisting the nurses. ‘I basically help them with feeding, changing, and washing patients, and assist with movement exercises.’
There are strict rules which areas of the ward are ‘dirty’ and which are ‘clean’. The hallway is clean, and patients’ rooms are dirty. Once a nurse is in the room, they can’t quickly leave to get something. Whenever the nurses need something to be thrown out, or need something they don’t have on hand, Laura and the other student on shift get it done.
But a big part of the job has also been to provide comfort to the many lonely patients. ‘They’re confined to their single rooms, and can’t see their family. I feel sad and sorry for them and their family, they don’t know what’s going on.’ Sometimes Laura sits with a patient, observing them for hours on end and noting any irregularities in breathing, or comforting them when they need it.
I feel sad and sorry for them and their family
She has especially bonded with one patient who’d just come off the ICU. The woman was constantly pressing the alarm bell next to her bed. She felt so lonely that seeing the nurses helped calm her. Laura decided to help her make a video call to her family. Even though the woman could hardly speak and was unintelligible, the family was really happy to see her. ‘And that made me happy.’
If she has the time, Laura now sits with the patient every day for about half an hour. They talk in Dutch, which after five years in Groningen Laura now speaks fluently. Sometimes, she reads to the patient out of the nurse’s diary. It is full of notes on the patient’s progress, like sitting up, or speaking a little. ‘Some patients find it hard to realise that they’re improving. The changes they make are so tiny, that it helps to read to them and remind them that they really are getting better.’
A lot of blood
Working on the Covid ward has brought the disease closer, she says. The air there is tense. ‘You can’t really relax; corona is always on your mind.’ It’s very different from what she’s experienced in the ER. ‘There, I saw the consequences of serious accidents and a lot of blood, but here I feel weak. This single virus has stopped the whole world, and we don’t know how to handle it.’
The first few days were especially difficult. So many things were happening at once. She managed to breathe her way through it and has since gotten into a routine. When she gets home, she takes the time to recharge: sit in her garden, soak up the sun, and call her family. ‘I have to tell someone, get the experiences out, and get some perspective. Plus, they’re curious.’ Her dad and brother are dentists and talk her through the medical stuff, and her mother is there for the more emotional support.
It has been an intense and emotional experience, but Laura stresses that it definitely hasn’t all been bad. She praises the generous atmosphere on the ward, and the team who are always there to help her out when she doesn’t know where to find something. And there are beautiful moments to remember as well.
I have to tell someone, get the experiences out
One patient finally took her first steps. She’d been hesitant at first when the physical therapist had offered the idea. She was afraid she wouldn’t have enough air in her lungs and enough strength in her legs. But with the physical therapist on one side and Laura holding her arm on the other, she put one foot in front of the other and took many more steps than expected.
She had tears in her eyes and seemed to get more energy from realising she was over the hardest part. She was now one more step closer to seeing her family again. Laura remembers exchanging smiles with the therapist; they both knew the woman was on the mend.
Manning the triage tent
‘It’s taught me a lot about people’
Dora van Elk’s residency was cut short by corona. Now she’s managing the triage tent at the GGZ in Emmen’s Scheper hospital.
She was nearly finished with her residency at the GGZ in Emmen when Dora van Elk (24) got an email on a late Sunday night. In short, it said to not come in on Monday, and to stay at home. They were trying to organise something to keep the residents busy, though it probably wouldn’t be related to their residencies, which meant she ran the risk of a study delay.
‘So now we basically man the triage tent’, says Dora. Anyone who wants to enter the hospital has to go through this tent first. Here, Dora and three other medicine students per shift check their temperature and their symptoms, like coughing or a runny nose. At peak hours, around 7 am, 4 pm and 7 pm, the line stretches around to the side of the hospital.
Usually, the visitors understand why they have to wait, but sometimes they are less forgiving, like when they haven’t been notified their appointment has been cancelled. ‘It’s taught me a lot about different kinds of people.’
One woman, Dora remembers, came all the way from Ter Apel and spoke neither Dutch nor English. Dora, who grew up in Australia, Syria and the Netherlands, was at a loss how to explain that she really couldn’t go into the hospital because that wasn’t where her appointment was. Using Google Translate, they figured out her appointment at the other hospital was cancelled anyway, and Dora arranged for a taxi to take her home.
So far she’s enjoyed the work. It’s crazy at times, she says, and even though it’s the same type of work for every shift, it gives her something to do.
The experience has also led to new realisations about the field of medicine. ‘I now realise even more how many people actually need medical care every day, even with the high number of cancelled appointments. I want to help them all. And there are so many people essential to keeping a hospital running, beyond the doctors and nurses. It only motivates me more. In a few years I’m going to be one of those people.’
Cleaning the bedpans
‘This is how we did it in corona times’
Paul van Stee helps out with a lot of different things on the Covid ward, from cleaning the bins for used protective clothing to filling up the supply of hand sanitiser and restocking bed linen.
He’s happy to be useful. Paul van Stee (25) still teaches his first-year medicine tutor group, though now online, but it’s different from actually being in the hospital. His mum, who is a nurse, also stressed that if he wants to be a doctor, he should familiarise himself with the work nurses do. ‘Without them, she said, nothing happens in a hospital.’
The patients on the ward apologise profusely whenever they have a hard time eating and swallowing, or when Paul has to clean their bed pans or diapers. ‘But for us, it’s really no big deal.’
One patient asked him straight up: ‘Is this truly a calling for you? Is this what you want to do?’ He immediately answered that it was, but the question did make him think. Isn’t it also scary to work on a Covid ward?
He admits that there are things he hadn’t expected, such as having to reuse FFP2 masks because of their limited supply. At one point he realised just how vulnerable he was. Paul stands 1.91 metres tall, so much of the protective clothing is too short for him. While in a patient’s room, he reached up to get something, but saw his sleeve roll up. His exposed wrist startled him. He disinfected his hands and wrists twice, and from then on taped his sleeves to his gloves.
But this is why he went into medicine, he says. ‘I accepted the extra stress and possibly dangerous situations I could find myself in so I could help others.’
The bad state of the patients on the Covid ward shocked him, though. Some need help with the most basic activities, often after they’ve just come off the ICU. One patient kept asking for the television to be turned on, then off, then on again. His eyes were glazed over, like he wasn’t really there. ‘I hadn’t seen it that often, and the fact that we had to explain things to him at least three times was just not okay.’
Despite the possible study delay, Paul is proud of the work he’s doing now. ‘If something like this happens again in forty-five years, I can tell my residents: this is how we did it in corona times.’