Khetho Mayisela (22) is a fourth year MBChB student (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) at the University of Pretoria (UP). Mayisela is one of the thousands of medical students who are under lockdown in South Africa and nursing her anxieties of losing time on her course and possibly having to repeat it. Mayisela is back at her home in Eswatini and awaiting communication from her institution on the way forward for the year.

As part of her fourth year activities, Mayisela would attend clinical rotations every day in local hospitals around Pretoria, two of which are now designated for covid-19 patients. When the virus first hit South Africa, Mayisela had to remain on rotation for three weeks before heading home. She talks about the experience of working in a hospital in the early stages of the panic and what her current fears are as universities remain closed.

As told to Vetiwe Mamba.

We, as students, didn’t really take the pandemic seriously when it was still overseas because it felt very distant from us and we didn’t really think it would reach us. Our pediatrics lecturer had begun giving us small bits of information about the virus in our lectures; what it is and how it works but we were all very laid back, cracking jokes about it and all.

When it eventually got to South Africa, we were still casual about it because it was all the way in Durban and it was only one case. I was personally under the impression that it wouldn’t really spread that far, which, in hindsight, was quite an uneducated assumption considering I’ve been taught about this before – I know how a virus works. I suppose it was wishful thinking on my part, thinking South Africa was more likely to get it under control because they had had time to prepare for it, unlike China and other countries that were first affected by covid-19.

In the following days, we started to feel the weight of the pandemic as we entered hospitals for our rotations and we’d see everyone in masks. I was doing my rotations at Tembisa Hospital one day when I walked in to find everyone in masks: the security guards; the doctors, the sisters and even patients were wearing masks. It was very scary, especially because we weren’t given masks; we very quickly began to fear being exposed to the virus and we wouldn’t even know it. There was this one day when we walked out of a ward and found a masked patient sitting in a wheelchair, shaking violently and sweating profusely with a blanket covering them, just in the middle of the corridor – we were all convinced that patient had covid-19. Working in the hospitals was extremely tough, I became very paranoid. Simply getting an itch in your throat would have you thinking “Oh no, I’ve got it now.”

As the virus escalated, I grew quite anxious and I was tossing a lot of worries over in my head. I was torn up about the possibility of an early recess because that would result in an extension of the academic year but at the same time, I didn’t want to stay and risk the borders closing because I am an international student. Then when it was made official that UP was closing and we were given 2-5 days to vacate the residences, I started to worry that I might have contracted the virus during rotations and I’d be bringing it back home and spreading it to my family and the country. Fortunately I am healthy and so is my family. 

Working from home is a bit distracting because we spend quite a lot of time together and that eats up most of my study time but my mom is very supportive. She always asks me if I’ve managed to cover all my lectures and she’ll buy me more data if ever the wifi is being problematic. Staying focused is definitely more difficult, I get caught up watching television or reading a book or I simply get lazy. I am a night owl though so I spend most weekends up late trying to catch up on everything. Surprisingly, being at home has reduced the stress I usually feel because I’m not in an academic environment so there’s less pressure. 

My biggest fear currently is an extension of my degree, fourth year is also one of the hardest years at UP medicine so the possibility of dragging this out is extremely disheartening, especially when I have two and half years left.

We’ve been told that we’ll finish the first semester online and we are yet to hear what the medical faculty has decided with regards to our clinical practice, because as much as we can finish our theory online, our clinicals are still a requirement to pass the year.

While we wait to start online classes, we’ve been receiving daily notes of the new block we’re meant to start like we usually do at school. Our chair of medicine is definitely working his hardest to give us updates and make online learning easier for us, they have attempted to give us access to date free websites and the lecturers save their lessons as zip files so that we use less data. All in all, the faculty has really tried its best to accommodate everyone. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Fourth year MBChB student, Khetho Maysiela who is currently back in Eswatini due to the covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Provided.