Mariam Tootla (22) from Ormonde, Johannesburg has been a paramedic for over four years, and is currently working as a reserve for the City of Johannesburg Emergency Medical Services. 

When the initial 21-day national lockdown commenced on March 27, all essential workers were required to continue working in the battle against the covid-19 pandemic in South Africa. Paramedics are considered essential workers and are often the first point of contact for patients who become ill. Working 12- to 14-hour shifts four times a week, Tootla says the threat of covid-19 has become just another part of her job with the associated risks of working on the front line. 

As told to Laura Hunter

My work routine hasn’t necessarily changed. We always check the ambulance, the machines and the medication. We have always been in the routine of cleaning our equipment. However, now we have to sanitise absolutely everything. We sanitise the floor, the entire vehicle and every machine – even if we haven’t used it – after every single patient.  

What has really changed is how we approach our patients because of covid-19. We have to take every single patient’s temperature before any other vital signs check. We don’t know if they are bringing the virus into our working area. Now we have to seriously wear our masks, gummy boots and gloves at all times. 

Personally, I am not worried about catching the virus. I have no illnesses and I have a healthy immune system because of my lifestyle. I am more worried about my parents, who I live with, and who both have chronic illnesses. I commute with them to work and back and they are definitely more at risk to covid-19 than I am. 

When the news broke, my mother wanted to lock me in my room. She has always been reluctant about the idea of me becoming a paramedic. She is fearful for my safety, but over the last couple of years she has started to understand what I do and why I do it. She knows that it is something I love and nothing is going to keep me at home. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was really difficult to create a routine of ensuring I do not bring the virus home. I have to make sure nothing from the outside comes inside. I leave my boots at the door, I sanitise all my belongings and immediately strip and take a shower. I even put Dettol in my body wash.

Thankfully, none of my colleagues have contracted covid-19. Our safety does play on my mind, but we are all more worried about going home and infecting our families. A lot of my colleagues are twice my age and have partners and young children at home. 

We do have to take a test for covid-19 every two weeks so the situation is controlled. Social distancing, however, has been very difficult. We (paramedics) are a cozy bunch. Our jobs are contact-driven. As soon as somebody is sick, they do not come to work. If you take your mask off while dealing with a patient, you have to go home and isolate for at least two weeks. 

During the lockdown, we have seen cases of crime increase. We get a lot of stabbings, shootings and assaults. Cases of gender-based violence have also increased, but the police are usually called first. We have had extra cases of methanol poisoning because people are fermenting things to make alcohol. Please leave the brewing to the professionals! 

Our job is naturally surrounded by a lot of death. There have always been dangers, such as being robbed or assaulted, and that worry never goes away. I became a paramedic because it’s a passion of mine and I don’t expect a ‘thank you’ for seeing you at your worst, for being there when you need care or just don’t want to die alone.

FEATURED IMAGE: Mariam Tootla (22) is a paramedic working on the front line in the battle against covid-19. PHOTO: Provided.