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Working at the COVID-19 Frontlines: A Malaysian teen’s first-hand experience

Even after I’m off my shift at 9pm, my entire body is tensed up. Ankles and wrists audibly crackling, I peel off my PPE* slowly, trying not to touch the external layer. I dump it all into the yellow Clinical Waste Only bin and sanitise my hands.

*(PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment.)

Phew!

Me in my sweaty scrubs, all PPE removed, after a long day at work.
Credits: Blog author, Rachel Tan HX

This is not the longest shift I have been on, however. I have done double shifts before (Click here to read about my First Double Shift), from 7am to 9pm, amounting up to 14 hours spent at the Emergency Unit as a Patient Care Assistant (PCA). I have also pulled two three-nights-in-a-row night shifts spanning 10 hours, from 9pm to 7am in the morning.

As usual, I always choose the best times to do everything. Dad treats us to ice cream on a rainy day. We accidentally make hot milo when it’s feeling stuffy in the house. COVID 19 hits my after-SPM limited freedom time, locking me at home… now I only ever stay at home or go out to work, having found a temporary job at this hospital only some weeks before COVID 19 got a bit out of control for Malaysia.

Still, I am extremely grateful for the experiences that are making me a little more mature, and for the things I am seeing and learning that open my eyes.


What Is Happening In Hospitals As We #dudukrumah (#stayhome)?

I happened to pick February and March to work at this hospital. Since the Second Wave of N-Cov infection began towards the end of February (on the 27th, about 10 days after no new cases at all had been recorded in Malaysia), I get to witness the metamorphosis of a hospital emergency unit as the COVID situation deteriorates. Let me show you how it’s like:

When I first joined, the emergency area was full of activity, with patients sitting at the waiting area, the doctor seeing his/her patients in the medical officer (MO)’s room, nurses treating patients for injuries in the treament room, or putting them on a drip in the ward.

After a while we put a table outside, called the Triage* Bay. One emergency staff would sit alone at the table, taking the temperatures and asking a list of questions to people who wanted to enter the hospital.

About a month later, two tents were set up in front of our small-scale hospital, and COVID 19 screening finally became available at our hospital. From there, the rules on the donning and doffing of PPE tightened further and further, multiple adjustments were made regarding how and who to triage and how and who to do the COVID test for, new triage forms had to be printed as the questions increased, our duty roster had to be tailored to fit the frontline needs, and the COVID team went from comprising of just us (A&E* staff) to including staff from other departments.

Now, most of the action is outside the hospital, and inside the emergency unit is as quiet as a mouse.

*(Triaging is basically to assess the seriousness of a patient’s illness or injury to decide the order in which a large group of patients should be attended to or treated.)

*(A&E stands for Accident and Emergency Department.)


My Experience On The Covid-19 Frontlines

Me in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
Credits: Blog author, Rachel Tan HX

Being a fresh SPM graduate (very possibly the youngest employee in our hospital, with only the absolute basics of scientific knowledge and medically unlicensed) and working as a temporary staff, when it comes to screening for Covid 19, I can understandably do not much but stand and watch. But for people with no medical background at all and little knowledge of how a hospital runs, it is still very interesting to watch. On the days I am assigned to triage, I watch doctors and the assisting nurse / lab staff do the test again and again. The screening for Covid 19 is called the nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swab, whereby a swab each is taken from your nose and throat to check for the virus. It is a bit uncomfortable for some as the swab inserted must reach quite far back. According to the people who have done the test, it will start to trigger your sneezing and gagging reflex, but yet you can’t seem to sneeze or gag/choke. Better #dudukrumah!

But being poked in the nose and throat with a white stick, and feeling like gagging and sneezing simultaneously as you leave the test area is all you see as a patient most of the time. Here is the specimen packing process in simple terms:

The specimen is placed into a tiny cylindrical container, which is placed into another such container, which is placed into yet another such container. The stuff from your nose and throat, already protected by three layers of containers, is placed into a resealable plastic bag, which is placed together with other resealable plastic bags containing the specimen into a styrofoam box. The box is placed into one or two layers of thick yellow Clinical Waste Only plastic bags, which is tied up like how you tie a rubbish bag. The bag is sprayed with a great amount of disinfectant, and finally a man from a bigger private hospital comes to collect the samples for testing… but not before spraying the big bag with his own disinfectant as well, just in case.

My job scope as a PCA consists of either sitting inside the emergency unit at the counter doing paperwork and registration, or standing outside triaging patients. At the triage bay, we ask patients the list of questions that check for COVID 19 symptoms and possible contact, and fill up the mandatory nursing procedure form, all while taking their temperature, blood pressure and oxygen saturation while doing so. (It’s perfectly fine to do all of that separately to avoid confusion, but try and do that when there are many patients waiting in line!) I watch my colleagues make friendly conversation with the patients and I try to do that too, but I struggle, since I am not very good at multitasking at all. But I always try my very best, and I’m getting better, even if little by little.

With all the work, I’m not complaining, though… because when there are patients, it takes your mind off how uncomfortable the PPE is. When there is a gap of time when there are no patients at all, you feel sweaty and hot and itchy, whether it’s a scorching hot day or if it is raining heavily. Your colleagues start to talk about ordering food from Foodpanda, and your stomach starts to rumble. It’s a very funny and light-hearted feeling, for me at least, somehow, to witness all the seriousness of screening for COVID 19, the tensed up mood caused by constant fear of contracting the disease and frustration due to the recent MCO*, and then hearing someone from our COVID frontline team suggest ordering food…. because it reminds me that all of us are human.

*(MCO stands for Movement control Order.)

I am doing triage, though. I cannot enter the hospital wearing full PPE (in case of contamination). Much less touch any food! Reminder: eat up before triaging, because the next time we can eat is in 7 hours (one shift’s) time. 😛


Read more from Rachel at her blog, Rachel’s Truth.

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