Press "Enter" to skip to content

My Personal Experience Working In A COVID-19 Ward

By Shamim Khan

July 2020

Physiotherapists add a human touch to the management of their patients.


It has been just over a week now since I started working as a physiotherapist in the COVID-19 ward. Assisting COVID-Positive patients with breathing exercises.

I walked into the ward to treat an old lady who is COVID positive and she says ” Oh I am so glad you came into the ward, please can you change my nappy.” I looked around to see if the nurse had followed me into the ward but found that I was alone. I said,” You do know I am the physio as I have been treating you the last few days”.

She said, “I know. It’s just that I am wet and cold”. “So why didn’t you call the nurse?” I asked. “I tried reaching for the call button but it slipped and fell onto the floor,” she said. I stick my head out of the ward as I can’t leave the ward as I will have to doff then don again. I call for the nurse but I am told she has gone to lunch. Its 3 pm Rather late for lunch. This nurse was telling me the day before how she wakes at 4 am to be able to leave home at 5:30 to be at work by 6:30 so she can be there for the hand over of patients.

Sometimes they do not get to go for tea breaks. I ask the nurse next door for assistance but she can’t assist as she is busy with the admission of a new patient. So I decide I have no option but to change the nappy…

As I roll the patient over, I realize her sheet is also wet so I change that as well. Then only can I treat the patient. As I finish my physio session the lady says “please will you be so kind as to brush my hair. It has not been brushed for a few days”. Feeling sorry for the old lady I begin brushing the tangle that is her hair. She starts talking about how good she was with staying home during the lockdown and only went to a relatives’ house to offer condolences following a family member’s death and that is how she contracted the virus.

Once done, she thanked me for my kindness and said she felt so much more comfortable.

Next, I see a new patient who just comes out of the bathroom as I get to the ward. He sits on a chair and is too breathless to speak after walking 10 meters. I go through his notes and do his assessment as I wait for him to catch his breath. Then I begin treatment and I also educate him a bit about how the virus affects his lungs. Then we walk a few times the length of the ward as we are not allowed out of the ward. He manages a distance of 60 m and is quite comfortable. He sits on the chair and cries. He says to me that I have given him hope.

He said he was so depressed that morning and thought he was doomed to die. That’s what they read in the media. Off to the ICU. I am so glad to see one of the patients I have been treating has been extubated after 2 weeks on the ventilator.

He sits up over the edge of the bed and is so relieved to be able to change his position.

In the middle of the physio treatment of the next patient his phone flashes and it’s his wife. He asks if he can take the call and I say it’s okay. The family is happy to see him sitting up. The kids cry and say they are missing dad and he must get well soon and come home. It’s going to be a while before he goes home as he had a very erratic course of improvements and deterioration.

As I am finishing my last patient in ICU with the nurse, we hear a very feeble cry for help. It’s coming from the sister across the ward. I opt to watch over my patient as the nurse runs across to assist. The patient somehow managed to loosen his restraints and was trying to pull his tube out of his nose. It’s been a long week in the COVID ICU and ward.

Among other requests I have had, have been to change the TV channel, to rub patients’ backs as they get sore from all that lying in bed, to give them water. We also assist the nurses with baths in the ICU. If the patient is unstable or very large and can only be turned minimally the nurse times the bath with physio time so it can all be done at one time.

The patients are isolated in the wards and cubicles. The nurses cannot be there all the time. They go in only when they have to. So when the patients see a physio, it’s like an extra pair of hands. To be able to bring some comfort to a patient by listening to their stories and doing little things, apart from the physio treatment, for them to make them more comfortable, makes it very gratifying. These stories I have shared are not unique to me. I am no miracle worker. We, physiotherapists, are in a unique position as we spend more time with our patients than many health care professionals.

Many of my physio colleagues will identify with these scenarios. We physios are a very versatile lot.

When a patient said to me this week: “You are like a beacon of light in this desolate road of darkness”, I realised why I still have passion for my profession after 32 years of being a physio. To my colleagues who identify with me, I salute you. We, physiotherapists, are a unique profession and we never tire of what we do.

DISCLAIMER: This post is a personal account of my observation and experiences in a Coronavirus ward. No names of actual patients are mentioned and the scenarios described are generic to any COVID-19 ICU in South Africa. The purpose of this post is merely to highlight the role that we as physiotherapists play in the fight against the Coronations pandemic.



Thomas Bloem
Thomas Bloem

View all posts