“We talk to our family through the window. It’s noisy, we miss them, but it’s all we can do: we’re scared for their lives and we want to protect them,” says Dr. Atyrkul Toktogonova. With nine of her colleagues from the National TB Center in Bishkek, Atyrkul is undergoing a 14-day observation period financed by the UNDP / Global Fund Project in a hotel. They spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week locked inside this hotel to monitor their health and rest after two very difficult weeks of work in the red zone. “When my daughter came to see me, she cried because she wasn’t allowed to hug me,” said Atyrkul.
After working in the “red zone” in direct contact with Covid-19 patients, health care workers are supposed to undergo a 14-day observation period. During this time, they are checked daily for any signs of Covid-19 and take two PCR tests. If the results are negative, they are then able to safely go back home after a long period of isolation from their loved ones. The UNDP project “Effective HIV and TB Control in the Kyrgyz Republic”, funded by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, is providing observation periods for health care workers from partner institutions: the National TB Center and the Republican Center for Addictions.
In the hotel, Atyrkul is enjoying her time in her PJ’s after two weeks of constantly working in personal protective equipment (PPE). All the medical workers agree, “Working in a protective costume is double the work, especially when it’s 40C outside. We sweat all the time, our blood pressure increases, we have headaches and nausea…” Her 26-year-old colleague Adilet Taalaybekov, who worked as a nurse but will soon become a TB doctor, adds: “When someone came out of the «red zone» we would line up with water bottles for them to drink.”
Although they are all eager to go back home to their families, the health care workers on observation are enjoying their rest. “The first days we would sleep all the time,” Atyrkul laughs. ”Each day we gain more strength and get ready to go back to work.” At the end of the observation period, Atyrkul will have spent a total of one month (two weeks in the hospital and two weeks in the hotel) away from home: “it’s as if we didn’t have a summer,” she says, still smiling from ear to ear.
Remembering the «Red Zone»
We can see that the doctors and nurses were really marked by their passage in the «red zone». Every day they talk together about their experience, about the difficulties they faced as well as the successes.
“The first three days in the «red zone” were very hard. A few patients died right when we came in, we didn’t even have the time to try saving them. None of us slept the first two nights. Then, somehow, we found the strength to continue working. Watching our patients get better and get released from the hospital erased our fatigue and our fear,” says Atyrkul.
In two weeks, this team of health care workers released 75 patients from the hospital. “We lost five patients in this time: three in the first hours of our shift, and two later on. They came in in a very serious condition, unconscious, blue, unable to breathe. One died in just four hours… Maybe we could have helped if they had sought medical help before,” says Adilet. He says that some of the scenes were like in a “horror movie, completely hopeless”.
“Emotionally, it was very difficult to see people suffering. Patients would look at us with so much hope in their eyes, waiting for some good news…” adds Atyrkul.
Most of the time they remember those they saved, for example an elderly couple who walked to the hospital with 41C fever and kindly asked to be admitted. Or a man who had a saturation of only 60. “He was completely blue, but we were able to help him on time. The next morning he even asked to eat,” remembers Atyrkul.
“Some patients would ask us what color is our hair, they would look at us from their window to try to guess who was who. Because with the PPE they can only see our eyes,” jokes Adilet. Even now that they are in the hotel, they keep calling their colleagues to check on the patients they left behind. “Some of the patients consider us now as their family.”
Ready to go back in the «Red Zone»
When the medical workers weren’t in the «red zone», they would consult patients outside or work on medical records. “When families called we barely had the time to answer,” says Atyrkul. They spent day and night in the hospital, ready at any moment to run save someone’s life. Not one of them wanted to give up during this time.
“I’m very proud of my colleagues,” says Adilet. “For us Atyrkul was like a boat captain. If it wasn’t for her we would have sunk. We were like in a warzone with an invisible enemy. But we made it though, as a team,” he says.
Adilet plans to go back to work at the National TB Center as soon as the observation period is over. “We have a lot of TB Patients who are waiting for us as well. Working in the «red zone» wasn’t even a question for me. How could I abandon my colleagues, my nation during a pandemic when I have higher medical education?” And although they all hope that the epidemical situation will improve, these health care workers are all ready to go back to the red zone if needed.