Paramedics Anne Biccard Dietitians
Photo Credit: Supplied Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA)

Two dynamic female paramedics share what it’s like to save lives in the time of COVID-19.


Johannesburg, South Africa (16 February 2021) – Sarah Kekana and Nicole Lester are two incredible South African paramedics who have been working on the frontline from the start of the global pandemic.

A car crash, a heart attack or a broken leg – these are some of the life-changing events one hopes never to experience, least of all during a pandemic such as the current COVID-19 one. Yet there are those brave few among us who take on the duty of caring for people in life’s most difficult moments, rushing to the side of whoever is in need to provide interventions that can mean the difference between life and death.

Saving lives in the time of COVID-19 has been one of the greatest challenges in medical history, but this has not stopped two dynamic young healthcare professionals from rising to the occasion. Sarah Kekana and Nicole Lester, emergency paramedics at Netcare 911 have – alongside their colleagues – been out in full force from patient’s homes to hospitals and emergency scenes in between.

South African Heroines - Healthcare Warrior Women On The Move!
Photo Cred: Sarah Kekana | Netcare Paramedics

Kekana, who is based at Netcare Linmed Hospital, relates that her passion for working with people only increased during this time.

“The instinct to assist in an emergency and the human interactions that ensue represent the truest experience of humanity to me. That enriches my work as an emergency healthcare worker,” she says.

According to Kekana, social dynamics in these situations have however not always been simple to navigate, particularly when attending to a patient at their home, and she has had to stand firm in her professional expertise.

“Some families try to intervene and take over while we are administering care and others insist we take a patient to the hospital for isolation even when the patient is stable and can recover at home. We are all going through a great deal at the moment. Sometimes the families are so stressed they do not realise they are making a situation worse and creating difficulties for those of us on the frontline trying our best to do the work we have been trained in.”

Lester, based at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital, has found herself in similar positions.

“We have encountered some difficulties in reasoning with patients and their families when it comes to the best course of action medically speaking,” she says. “Naturally, everyone in the country is under a higher level of stress, and there is a great deal of fear around the pandemic, which is very hard for us all. It is our job to make the best possible decision for each patient, which might mean avoiding a trip to hospital when it is not necessary, for example. Not everyone can understand this.”

Like all other healthcare professionals in the past 11 months, the two young women have been working extended hours and have had to make personal sacrifices in order to continue performing their jobs. “It is easy to take for granted the relationships that keep us anchored in life but having family and friends to share our experiences with is so important,” says Lester. “For six months I was unable to see my parents, as I was too high-risk. However, even just being able to talk to them on the phone was such a blessing.

“Physical interactions have had to change completely. Where before we were able to give a reassuring touch to a patient’s shoulder, for example, we now have to be extra cautious. Likewise, not being able to have the same human contact with co-workers has been tough. Often, after a difficult emergency when we are back at our base and have completed the debrief, we need a hug from a co-worker, or they might need one from us. Now we are not able to do that as we have to be so careful of physical contact,” she says.

Continuing to work on emergencies and to save lives during the pandemic has included a host of new practical challenges, which previously did not exist. Kekana cites the example of how much more time now has to go into the already rigorous precautionary safety and hygiene protocols in order to protect the patient at hand, the patient who will follow and of course the attending paramedic.

South African Heroines - Healthcare Warrior Women On The Move!
Photo Cred: Netcare Paramedics

Communication through body language, such as facial cues has also been impacted by the necessity to wear facemasks. This has made certain situations harder to interpret. “We have found it a great challenge working with masks in terms of communication, where some patients are hard of hearing and rely on lip-reading,” comments Lester.

“We then have to request permission to remove our mask and use a visor to stand at a distance and talk. The mask then needs to be replaced when we go closer to physically attend to the patient, and so it continues.”

Despite these many hurdles, the paramedics say they have found strength and hope in the humbling acts of kindness they have witnessed, as well the community spirit amongst healthcare professionals and society at large.

“You go into people’s homes, their most personal space, to help them when they are in distress. Despite these circumstances I have experienced amazing kindness, even from the least fortunate of people, such as an elderly woman who is visibly struggling financially but offers her very last cookie in an expression of gratitude,” says Lester.

“Particularly during the pandemic, it has been wonderful to see how people have reprioritised,” adds Kekana. “Certain things that we once thought mattered no longer do; people have become far more focused on what really counts in life. We have seen that we can achieve so much in difficult times by working as one in a community and a society.

“Furthermore, I have had the opportunity to dig deep to learn a great deal about myself. I have learned that I am resilient. I am patient. I am adaptable. In a crisis situation, I can take a mental step back and approach a situation from a different angle when I need to,” Kekana asserts.

Netcare 911’s operations director, Shalen Ramduth, expressed his gratitude to the emergency medical professionals like Kekana and Lester and to other healthcare workers who continue to serve the community with such unwavering commitment.

“It has been just over a year since COVID-19 hit our shores, during which time the face of healthcare in South Africa has changed completely. As part of the healthcare community in our country, we at Netcare 911 wish to salute all those who have so bravely fought this storm. We cannot know what lies ahead, but with such fine examples of consummate and compassionate professionals among our ranks, we can be sure of nothing but the best possible care at all times,” he concludes.

Sources: Netcare Paramedics | Sarah Kekana | Nicole Lester
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Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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