As the pandemic continues to rage, it is making clear that people around the world are surprisingly alike. No matter what divides us, gratitude for health care personnel for their titanic work is one thing we all have in common. In their name, authorities around the globe have asked people to follow the recommendations, to ignore false information and to protect them from discrimination. Their dedication to their calling has inspired the rest of us to help them succeed by doing our part.
The story of Andrea Bernal is one of hundreds of thousands. Doctors and nurses applauded her when she was discharged from the Juárez Hospital in Mexico City after an eight-day fight for her life. That fight will continue as she recovers, but despite the rigorous isolation measures doctors ordered, she will finally see her family. Her gratitude to the health personnel who saved her life is absolute. "Thank you,” she said simply to the hospital’s doctors, nurses, laboratory workers, social workers, administration, laundry, reception staff, and everyone who works to cure the body, but also the spirit of the patients and their families. “They are very careful; they encourage us every day so that we can be better. Every time we are desperate, they give us encouragement," she explains.
During the past month, the hospital provided care to 900 people with respiratory diseases; 400 have been hospitalized by COVID-19 and 162 have been discharged.
The staff at the Juárez Hospital are just a few of those around the country who have helped treat some 180,000 people in Mexico. Nearly 22,000 of those infected have died.
Everything changes from one moment to another
One of the challenges the health care personnel have faced at the Juárez Hospital is how to adapt. From configuring buildings to cordon off patients with COVID-19 so the hospital can continue treating patients with other diseases, to significant adjustments to the staff’s schedules, roles and workloads, to new hygiene protocols to prevent spread of the disease, the watchword since March has been change.
"All this has been very dynamic, " explains Dr. Francisco Gabriel Reyes Rodríguez, Chief of Emergency Area in Hospital Juárez. “From one day to the next, we had to adjust to provide quality care. Here in the emergency department, the beds had to be configured so that we could care for critically ill patients, patients who required the start of mechanical ventilation, or technology such as a biolaryngoscope, or isolation cabins. . . all the measures that would allow medical personnel attend to the patient, but also protect themselves from the risk of contagion.”
All of the adaptations must be done quickly. There is no possibility of wasting time or asking a patient to wait. Here the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which are derived from experience treating patients in other countries, have been fundamental, explains Dr. Reyes.
"We have had impressively high numbers of patients. The most important thing is that we have not stopped providing care, practically 24 hours a day , 7 days a week. Whenever a patient arrives, we have been ready to attend to them," says Dr. Reyes.
Ways of communicating with family members has also changed. Everything is handled by phone to avoid having people in the waiting room. Doctors and social workers have collaborated closely to spare patients’ families the anguish of hearing too little news about their condition. The high risk of transmitting the virus means patients and their families must face long days and nights apart. The hospital staff are the bridge that helps them stay connected to each other during treatment. They try to keep helping the patients like Andrea who can return home to complete their recovery, and the families of the patients they cannot save.
Healthcare workers are human beings, too
The vocation and love for their work is what keeps the healthcare staff on their feet, but of course, they are human beings who face this situation with a range of feelings, including fear that no one – inside the hospital or out – can shake.
"We are in phase 3 in Mexico, and unfortunately the number of patients is growing. We have mixed feelings,” says Silvia Olguín Pérez, Head of Emergency Nurses at the Juárez Hospital. ”We have family so we are also afraid for them, but here we are very aware that as health personnel we have to face this pandemic.”
Another fear is of attacks, hate speech and discriminatory actions that sometimes targets doctors and nurses.
“I want to ask you to understand our work,” Olguín says. “We did not want this. The disease came to our country. We are the ones who have to face this pandemic. Fighting it is our job and our vocation. We too are risking our lives.”
Teamwork is the way to fight the pandemic
Dr. Luis Antonio Gorordo del Sol, who heads the Intensive Therapy of COVID-19 areas of the Juárez Hospital, sees information as an important part of the fight. People must be aware of the disease and reject false information because both COVID-19 and myths about it put thousands of lives at risk. Following health authorities’ recommendations is absolutely essential to avoid more infections and complications, he says.
“What I see here every day is a reflection of those outside the hospital who ignored the recommendations. Staying at home, continuing good hand hygiene, getting medical attention promptly and not trying to self-medicate is what people should do at this time,” he says.
Above all, teamwork is essential to face the pandemic.
"We are all part of a team. As a society, those outside are helping to save lives by staying at home. Those here in the hospital are helping those who are already sick. We are a synergy and we must work as a team. Allowing ourselves to be divided in this global crisis has consequences that are often deadly.”
Nowhere is that lesson clearer than in hospitals’ intensive-care units. Doctors from many other disciplines, including internists, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and others, have been added to care teams to try to achieve the best results when that is possible or, when it is not, to lessen the suffering of patients and provide them a dignified death.
“After this pandemic, I don't think we will be the same again, neither as people nor as specialists. Neither in structure nor in infrastructure,” says Dr. Gorordo del Sol. “We must be better prepared; we must recommit to our work. We must continue to improve contingency plans and adapt to changes.”
His sadness mirrors that of many others who work on the pandemic’s front lines, but it is tempered by a determination to help patients keep fighting the ravages of the disease.
A salute by the UN Secretary-General
Secretary-General António Guterres dedicated his message on World Health Day on 7 April “to our health care workers — the nurses, midwives, technicians, paramedics, pharmacists, doctors, drivers, cleaners, administrators and many others — who work, day and night to keep us safe.
“Today, we are more deeply grateful than ever to all of you, as you work, around the clock, putting yourselves at risk, to fight the ravages of this pandemic,” he said. “We stand with you and we count on you. You make us proud; you inspire us. We are indebted to you. Thank you for the difference you are making, every day and everywhere.”