RIYADH: The COVID-19 pandemic means members of the medical and scientific community are sacrificing their health, wealth and mental wellbeing for the greater good. Arab News spoke to a number of medical staff battling the disease in order to keep residents of their community safe about the toll it is taking on them.
Dr. Faris Radwan, a general physician at the Saudi Red Crescent Authority lives and works in Riyadh. His family are 948 kilometers away in Jeddah. “Ever since the lockdown began it’s been a mind game more than actually battling the virus. To fight something you can’t see or feel, to wonder and wait, going to bed every night thinking, ‘What if…’ The workload has increased threefold, (there is) panic where it’s not needed and elevated stress levels and paranoia,” he said.
Even with the tremendous pressure the medical staff face every day, Radwan has found “inner peace and acceptance” by “seeing the silver lining in things.” He may be alone but that is “a blessing in disguise,” he says.
“If I happen to catch anything at least (my family are) safe. If I don’t, then thankfully I’m able to lend a helping hand to anyone in need in any way I can, it’s a sign that I am loved by the Almighty.”
Most medical staff dealing with COVID-19 share the same fear that they might carry the virus home and infect their family. Many doctors have chosen to stay in hotels until the pandemic is over, in order to protect their loved ones, others are torn between staying away for too long and the effect that might have on their young children.
Dr. Fadwa Al-Ofi, an infectious diseases consultant at Uhod Hospital in Madinah is struggling with helping patients and caring for her family. As a mother of two, she is physically exhausted and mentally drained. “How do you explain physical distancing to a five year old?” she asks.
“Since the news broke on the coronavirus outbreak, as specialists we knew that we were heading into a difficult stage, and we were preparing — reading the news about China and the countries that were hit before the first case arrived in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Ofi told Arab News. “Seeing the events unfold was frightening, but, thank God, Saudi Arabia — represented by the Ministry of Health — took all precautionary measures from the very start to reduce the spread of the pandemic.”
When duty called, Al-Ofi was asked to start work immediately. Her expertise is vital, as she examines and treats patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 in her city, where the number of those infected has passed 3,500.
"The matter was very worrying. On one hand, it was our work, our religious, professional and patriotic duty, and on the other hand, our hearts feared for our families,” she said.
Al-Ofi booked a long stay in a hotel to self-isolate away from her family and loved ones, but persistent questions kept nagging at her: “How long and until when?” and, more importantly, “Can I stay away from my daughter and my little son?”
She could not. She feared her absence might do more harm than good. “They are young and need me during these uncertain times,” she said.
Hugs and kisses that once came easily, have now become rare and scarce. “I have tried to explain to my daughter that I can’t hug or kiss her now,” she said. “Given her young age, she can’t comprehend the reason.”
The invisible enemy has caused people to be on edge and tread lightly, the best form of showing love is now separation.
“In the beginning, I seriously considered isolating myself from my family,” Dr. Maha Al-Johani, an infectious diseases consultant at King Fahad hospital in Jeddah, said.
She reconsidered that decision after realizing that the pandemic may last a long time, and decided that being away from her young children was not possible.
“I decided to suit up, and take all precautionary measures at the hospital,” she said. But those measures don’t stop at work; coming home requires elaborate hygiene measures too. “After a long and exhausting day at the hospital, all we want is a hug from our children. As we enter our homes, they welcome us eagerly and happily, but we can’t go near them. We fear for them,” Al-Johani said.
As stressful as their jobs may be, these medical staff all have one thing in common, they are proud to serve their country. “It is our responsibility and our duty,” Al-Johani said. “We rejoice greatly when a patient recovers and is discharged from the hospital in good health. The fatigue is forgotten.”
The stress that doctors are facing is extremely draining — their work hours are even longer and busier than normal. They are facing a daunting task: treating an ever-growing number of infected patients and risking getting infected themselves.
“We face psychological consequences, from a constant fear of infecting our families,” Dr. Afrah Al-Somali another infectious diseases consultant, told Arab News. That fear is double sided she added. “We fear we might infect our loved ones, and our loved ones fear (that we might get) infected.”
Dr. Sharif Hala has been traveling by car to Madinah, Jeddah and Makkah several times a week to collect samples from infected patients. As one of 33 Saudi scientists chosen by the MOH to research COVID-19, he asked Arab News to pass on a heartfelt message: “Please be patient with us and support us by staying home, staying safe and (praying).”
“I want Saudi people to know that many people in the medical field are spending days and nights working to find a solution. I would like to thank everyone involved in this project and specifically my parents and my wife Duaa Ahmed for coping with me during the collection of the samples,” he said.