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Ugandan health worker in US shares her experience handling COVID-19 patients

By Elvis Basudde

Added 1st June 2020 12:06 PM

Ugandan health worker in US shares her experience handling COVID-19 patients

The Bugingos

In 2012, Sarah Bugingo left Uganda for the US to visit a relative. As she was preparing to return, coincidently, she met her present husband who was already a resident in the US, Douglas Bugingo.

They got married in 2014, after which, she pursued a course in nursing qualifying as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). She talked to us what it is like working on the frontline of the Coronavirus outbreak.  

Her narrative

I was inspired to join the health sector by my aunt, Mary Nasazzi (RIP), who was a nurse in Uganda, but later relocated to the US. And because of her stay in the US, she missed her graduation at Makerere University Business School.

Nasazzi's passion for her calling accelerated my desire to choose my specialty because I also desired to help people in their most vulnerable moments. I discussed my intentions of training as a health care worker with my husband which he obliged to. I, thus, pursued a course in nursing qualifying as a licensed practical nurse.

Learning about COVID-19

When we first heard the news of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, we took light of it, knowing it was far from us here in the US. I presume even our president here, Donald Trump, thought Coronavirus was far away because there was a time he called it a "Chinese virus," meaning it was distant.

 However, we started learning from tragedies in Italy and Spain that it was enormous because hospitals had become a major vector for the spread of COVID-19. 

Today, here in the US, we are describing the devastating impact of COVID-19 upon ourselves.

As we talk now, data shows that US is one of the worst-hit countries globally, ranking number one with 1,798,479 cases and 105,789 deaths. It is followed by Brazil with 487,988 cases and 29,786 deaths, and Russia is in the third position with 387,356 cases and 6,444 deaths. 

It became public knowledge through social media that healthcare workers across the US are dealing with an influx of patients due to the novel Coronavirus. There were already stories circulating that  America's healthcare workers were being infected and dying in some states such as New York and Georgia, medical staff account for as many as 20% of known corona virus cases.

Health authorities had no consistent way of tallying the deaths of healthcare workers, but by around March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 27 deaths among health workers.

I had not started handling COVID-19 patients by then, I was working on patients with other chronic health condition and my days were fairly relaxed. But I must confess the revelation that there were cases of reported deaths among healthcare workers instilled a lot of fear in me, as a healthcare worker.

Summoned to attend to COVID-19 patients

(She declines to give details of the location of her health facility for matters of privacy). I vividly remember my first encounter with COVID-19 patients. My health facility has more than 100 rooms where patients are kept.

"You are going to work on the COVID-19 floor," the scheduler told me that day when I reported for work. It was as if I did not hear the pronouncement properly. At a time where no cure or vaccine has been approved for the new Coronavirus, I knew that I was especially vulnerable to contracting the virus.

Me, to start testing COVID-19 patients! I exclaimed inside me. I developed cold feet and feared going inside the rooms. I had left my family home, my husband and my three- year-old daughter. Given my proximity to patients with COVID-19, I said to myself, "I cannot be the reason my husband and my daughter die."

 As a nurse, is it normal to feel anxious and worried about coping with the pandemic. Health workers report for work in the most challenging of circumstances. There is the fear that we will become infected or we will infect our families that our colleagues will become sick or the stories we hear from other countries will become our stories.

It is my job to save lives

What does it mean for me to risk my own health — and my family's — for the greater good? This was a very haunting question for me. But I started encouraging myself, saying it is my job to save lives and also in my mind knowing that i took a Nightingale Florence pledge.

Despite the personal risks, I said I feel obligated to help, to comfort patients who were going through this alone. I was also encouraged and provoked by the hard work and the passion the US government was putting in to save people who had contracted the Coronavirus. America never took chances, tried its best to treat the victims of COVID-19. That also inspired me.

Because of what we call HIPPA violation (which is a law protecting patients), I cannot say how many patients I work on daily who test positive or not, but all I can say hospitals are overwhelmed. There are always more patients critically ill with COVID-19 in most of the hospitals here than ever thought possible including nurses.

The safety measures we take at work

There are some measures that all health workers must strictly observe. Before coming inside the facility to start your shift, you undergo screening which includes taking your temperature, and if it is a little higher, above 100.4F, you cannot be allowed to enter the facility.

The section control nurse also asks you questions, for example, he would like to know where you have been in the last two weeks, whether you have a running nose, fever etc. All doctors and nurses are also obliged to wear a gown, the N95 mask, goggles, sanitizing, and gloves if within two meters of a suspected or confirmed Coronavirus patient.

Naturally, anxiety about patients, the possibility of infecting family members and the social impact of the pandemic are being felt by many of us nurses each passing day.

But for me, apart from applying the necessary precautions, I pray to God, which I am pretty sure, is the only thing that has helped me as a person. I know that I have God with me and He has the final say to all situations.

However, there have been some real scary moments. I am struck and depressed when I see a corona virus patient going bad. Watching a relatively young guy gasping for air, pink frothy secretion coming of his tube can be terrifying, and I have witnessed that.

It is more terrifying to learn about the death of a colleague due to COVID-19, including close relatives. I get scared every day and I am being haunted by this experience. I have so far undergone three COVID 19 tests as a result of fear being exposed since I work on a COVID-19 unit. 

I can say that despite the incredible efforts the US government has put in to fight this pandemic, America has not achieved complete victory over the pandemic. The pandemic has threatened our liberty.  However, one thing is absolutely clear. There is a lot of information and awareness sharing and co-operation with one another.

This is a powerful tool in fighting the virus. There is absolute solidarity and co-operation amongst the people and I am positively with no doubt that if we continue like that, America will surely bring victory over COVID-19.

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