FHS student volunteers stepping up

20 Jul 2020 - 12:30

Around 250 student volunteers from the Faculty of Health Sciences are assisting with the province’s response to the pandemic. Meet the Head Coordinator of the COVID-19 Volunteer initiatives and President of the UCT Surgical Society, Savannah Verhage (5th Year MBChB).

How old are you and where are you from?

I am 22 years old and I was born and raised in KwaZulu Natal.

Why did you become involved in the COVID- 19 response? 

I have always had a heart for outreach and I have organised and participated in a number of medical outreach initiatives during my time at medical school. When the pandemic hit South Africa, UCT closed and we were all sent home “until further notice”. I felt completely hopeless, as it seemed like there was nothing that we as medical students could do to assist with combating the virus. However, a week before the National Lockdown was announced, Professor Lee Wallis from the Disaster Management Centre contacted me, as President of the UCT Surgical Society, to find out whether we would be able to provide student volunteers to man the Provincial COVID-19 hotlines at the Disaster Management Centre in Tygerberg. We were grateful to be given the opportunity to play our part in serving the community through manning the hotlines. The response from the medical students was absolutely overwhelming and within a week we had over 100 MBChB, Health and Rehabilitation, Masters and PhD students within the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences on board to assist. It has been heart-warming to see how many students are willing to give up their time to volunteer for 12-hour shifts, during this turbulent time, at the Disaster Management Centre. 

Our student volunteers received a lot of positive feedback and so I began actively searching for ways to expand our volunteer efforts to further contribute towards reducing the burden on the frontline. I managed to get in contact with the doctor that is heading up contact tracing in the Western Cape and a few weeks later we began recruiting student volunteers from across South Africa for this initiative too, as the work can be done remotely. Student volunteers contact all COVID-19 cases and their close contacts individually. Contacts include work, household and social contacts. The aim is to ascertain risk and prevent further infection as well as ensure that patients know what they need to do (e.g. self-isolate or see a doctor).

At the beginning of May, the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise exponentially and the doctors on the frontline were desperately looking for extra hands to help with the patient load at Groote Schuur Hospital’s (GSH) COVID-19 Testing Centre. I was approached by one of the doctors at GSH who had heard about the other volunteer initiatives the UCT Surgical Society was coordinating and wanted to know whether our student volunteers could assist with swabbing COVID-19 patients too. We opened up sign-ups and once again the response from students was overwhelming. For this initiative, the clinical medical students (years 4-6) assist with the actual swabbing of patients and the pre-clinical medical students (years 1-3), health and rehabilitation students and Masters/PhD students assist with the important admin tasks that ensure the efficient and effective through-flow of the centre.

In total the UCT Surgical Society is now coordinating around 250 student volunteers from the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences. I feel privileged to be in a profession where my colleagues really want to make a discernible difference in our country as much as I do and it has been incredible to see how students from all different disciplines within the Faculty of Health Sciences have banded together, contributing their diverse skills and time where needed, in order to maximally assist the healthcare workers on the frontline.

How are you currently assisting at the coalface? Where are skills most needed at the moment? 

As President of the UCT Surgical Society, I have been coordinating this project from the students’ side at UCT, together with my team. Our role is to liaise with the head doctors of the various initiatives (COVID-19 hotline, GSH testing and screening and contact tracing) daily to find out how many student volunteers they require for the day and night shifts and then ensure that we have enough students to assist on the frontline. I am responsible for recruiting volunteers, communicating any updates or announcements with the volunteers, drawing up the shift rosters, organising the travel permits during the lockdown period and liaising with the doctors on a daily basis to ensure that we are meeting the needs in the healthcare sector and rendering assistance and support wherever needed. 

What are some of your experiences as the pandemic is ramping up?

It has been very evident that the COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks have started to increase dramatically, as we head towards the peak of the pandemic. Shifts at all three of the COVID-19 volunteer initiatives have been incredibly busy, with peaks of 130 patients a day in the GSH Testing Centre and about 150 calls coming through per day at the Provincial COVID-19 Hotline from members of the public that are concerned about COVID-19 symptoms. I think that the general public is beginning to become complacent about wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing. However, now more than ever, it is essential that people practice caution, as the cases are escalating exponentially and our hospitals are becoming overburdened.

What are the challenges that health care workers are facing? 

I think that many healthcare workers are feeling anxious. Not only for themselves and their families, as they are being exposed to COVID-19 on a daily basis but also for their patients and the healthcare sector as a whole. Our medical system is riddled with insufficient human and physical resources and a pandemic just adds pressure on an already overburdened system.

I think the effects of COVID-19 have been pervasive and have not only affected people's health and mental well-being but also placed a number of families in dire financial straits. Unfortunately, I think that the ramifications will be far-reaching and long-lasting. However, although this is a turbulent and trying time in our country, I believe it is important to try and focus on the positives, such as how quickly and radically our government has reacted to the COVID-19 emergency in South Africa, the way in which South African doctors are fighting this virus at the frontline with bravery and grit and the way the virus has, in some ways, brought our nation together for the common good of the country. My hope is that these attributes will not only hold us in good stead going forward and help us to minimise the number of fatal infections in our country but that we will also become a beacon of hope to the rest of the world by demonstrating to them how a situation like this can be appropriately managed. 

How will this pandemic prepare you for your future as a doctor? 

This is a truly surreal experience, particularly because no-one ever expects to be involved in a pandemic of this magnitude during his or her own lifetime. However, a crisis like this serves to remind us of just how vital proper preparation and early intervention is if the crisis is to be averted. I have gained a lot of knowledge and first-hand experience in Disaster Management Protocols, something that we definitely do not get enough exposure to in medical school. Working with so many different individuals from a diverse array of medical disciplines has definitely highlighted for me the importance of teamwork when it comes to organising and executing volunteer initiatives of this scale. Working in multi-disciplinary teams is a vital aspect of being a doctor and so I am certain that this experience will hold me in good stead in the future. I think I have also grown a lot as a leader and learnt how to manage my time more effectively – trying to juggle coordinating 3 volunteer initiatives and online learning can sometimes be overwhelming!

Do you think more medical students should be sharing skills during this crisis? 

Yes, definitely. I think a crisis like this demonstrates how every person in South Africa has an important and essential role to play, if we are to effectively beat COVID-19. This pandemic cannot be conquered by the medical professionals alone - it requires the full co-operation and participation of all our citizens, from those who obediently self-isolate at home to the medical students who assist our brave doctors and nurses on the frontline by volunteering for the COVID-19 Hotline, GSH Testing Centre or contact tracing in the Western Cape. There is, after all, strength in unity and I believe that if our nation pulls together during this trying time and we, as medical students, play our part in assisting where we can to minimise the burden on the frontline, we will emerge stronger. After all, South Africans are known for their resilience!

How many students are involved and what year of study are they in? 

In total, we have around 250 students volunteering across all the three initiatives. The students come from a diverse array of disciplines within the Faculty of Health Sciences and span across all years, with the tasks stratified based on year of study and expertise. By including all students from all years and disciplines in the initiatives, this emphasises the fact that everyone has a unique and equally important role to play in fighting this pandemic.