- This is the time to protect our limited numbers of medical people, who expose themselves to this virus on a daily basis. No expense must be spared. No strategy must be spurned.
I know a little about stigma. It was the year 2005. I had just finished my first surgical residency exam. I had left Battor and spent three weeks in Accra burning through anatomy, physiology and histology pages. I battled sleep, tiredness, I pushed through the days, until the final one when I stood in front of the examiners. And they told me 30 minutes after the exam, that I had passed. That was just how things were done. You knew your fate, almost as soon as you finished the exam.
I felt a bit woozy during my 2 hour drive back to Battor that evening. I noticed the cold sweat as soon as I sat in the car. When I got to Battor, I was feeling the pain in my back and shoulders, but I thought I had done enough over the past few weeks to deserve muscle pain.
I woke up the next morning, and the pain was still there. It was a sick nagging pain. And I had a fever. I thought the Mamprobi mosquitoes had taken their toll. I took some ant malarial tablets, It did not get better. And on my third day was just as bad as the first. My appetite was sinking. My strength was flagging. When my blood count suggested I had an infection, I started taking antibiotics. I was living alone, in a 3 bedroom house. I had zero cooking skills… still do. I had a place to go for light soup. Soon I could not sit and eat. I would end up lying down to take a break, and then continue. And then go to work the next day.
I had two warnings. One I ignored. The second I could not. First was my colleague coming to me after a morning meeting, and telling me in the face that I looked like a terminally ill patient. It hurt. But it did not stop me from going back to work the next day. I finished a case and whilst taking off my gloves, noticed the tremor. I must have felt like my trousers were dropping off. Because I walked over to the weighing scale in the theatre. My weight was 57kg. My usual weight was 75 - 80Kg. I went to buy the light soup, hobbled my way to the flat, struggled through a few spoons, and called my mother. This had been my second warning.
We drove home the next evening. Folks at home were shocked at how much weight I had lost in a short time. I went to see the physician the next day. All the labs seemed fine. Then he listened to my chest, and asked me to go for a chest x-ray. The radiographer took one look at me, and walked away, leaving my request form on the desk. Her colleague called her back, telling her I was a doctor. I remember her retort to this day:
‘And so what?’ She must have known something was desperately wrong as soon as she saw me.
The second colleague shook his head, got someone else, and I heard oohs and aahs from the technician’s bench, before I finally got the film. Then I understood. My left lung was all white, with the stippled pattern that only tuberculosis has, and there was already cavitation. The physician immediately sent me off to the TB centre in Korle Bu. I met another physician who cursorily looked through the referral and wrote a prescription for medications for a month, and a request for a sputum test. I was on my way to the pharmacy when I realised I had been put on a regime that meant I would receive a daily injection for 3 months. At this time the evidence was overwhelming that an all oral regime was just as effective. I went back to her to ask for the oral regime, explaining that I could not come to the hospital everyday for an injection. She would hear nothing of it. I went to a classmate of mine, and made a strong appeal for the regime to be changed. He changed it to all oral.
Later that day, waiting in the queue with fellow TB sufferers for the sputum test kit, I wondered about the path I had chosen. I would go on to take medications for a year. I had nowhere to turn to, but my parents. My family nursed me back to health over 6 weeks. And I did walk back into the hospital, to work again. And expose myself all over again. And 15 years have passed.
And now that COVID 19 rears its head, and as colleagues begin to get infected, I am reminded about the absence of a safety net, and how exposed one can feel.
The country thankfully has so many asymptomatic COVID infected persons, but this means our medical staff will be disproportionately exposed. This is the time to protect our limited numbers of medical people, who expose themselves to this virus on a daily basis. No expense must be spared. No strategy must be spurned. None of the staff who are isolated now because of a positive status, must be left to recuperate alone. This is when the society must show that it cares.
No one must be left behind.