Lebanon News

Health care workers on front lines of COVID-19 battle

Dr. Mahmoud Hassoun, head of coronavirus unit at Rafik Hariri Hospital. (The Daily Star/Ghada Alsharif)

BEIRUT: For nearly two months, Dr. Mahmoud Hassoun has gone to work at Rafik Hariri University Hospital every day concerned about the possibility of getting infected by coronavirus and bringing it home to his wife and children.

“It feels like I’m going to war every day, and every day you worry about whether you’re infected and if you’re going to bring it home to your family,” he tells The Daily Star.

Hassoun, who lives with his wife and two children, a 4-year-old and a newborn that’s just 3 weeks old, is the head of the coronavirus unit at the hospital, which has borne the brunt of the pandemic in Lebanon, taking on the majority of cases in the country.

Out of 668 recorded cases so far, the governmental hospital has diagnosed over 315 patients and admitted over 200.

Exposed to such risk, these days Hassoun doesn’t dare touch his family after working a 12-hour shift in the coronavirus intensive care unit, and even sleeps in a separate room from his wife to prevent any potential transmission of the virus.

He, along with a team of 16 doctors and 130 nurses in the Rafik Hariri University Hospital’s coronavirus ICU, has been on the front lines in the fight against the global pandemic since the illness was first detected in Lebanon on Feb. 21.

Reine Raffoule, a 40-year-old nurse working in the facility’s coronavirus ICU, says the work can be emotionally exhausting. She too lives with the constant fear that she will infect her husband and three children when she comes home.

Numbers from the Order of Nurses in Lebanon indicate that so far around 30 nurses in Lebanon have been infected.

The reality is that health care workers across the country now go to work knowing they are putting both themselves and their families at risk of COVID-19 infections.

However, after almost two months of combatting the illness, Hassoun is upbeat about Lebanon’s capacity to manage COVID-19 as long as lockdown measures are maintained and mass testing is implemented.

“Right now we are doing excellent, but if cases increase rapidly and we have a major outbreak of hundreds or thousands of cases per day, there will be a collapse of the healthcare system,” he warns.

Rafik Hariri University Hospital has the capacity to take in 150 coronavirus patients with moderate symptoms and 22 critical.

“If we get to a stage of 1,000 per day, where are you going to go with all the patients?” Hassoun says.

So far, Lebanon’s reported coronavirus infection rate remains low, but public health experts have said that at least 2,500 tests need to be carried out daily – and at random – in order to build a more accurate representation of the spread of the virus in the country.

Hassoun cites this as the main reason why mass testing needs to be carried out before making the decision to return to normal life.

“Lockdown can’t be relaxed without mass testing and getting a clearer picture of infections. It will be a catastrophe,” he explained. Currently, the hospital is administering around 300 tests a day.

Although the rapidly evolving outbreak makes the illness hard to predict and new information surfaces constantly, Hassoun says that after several weeks battling the illness he and his team have learned to adapt to the stresses of the situation.

“At first it was really hard. My depression was worst in the early days when I had four patients die suddenly in one night and I couldn’t do anything for them,” he recalls.

“But now we’re used to it. We understand it better. We’ve memorized routines and we know how to treat patients in critical condition and what symptoms to focus on,” he says.

The hospital has created an entirely separate entrance for suspected coronavirus patients, and the dedicated ICU, which Hassoun describes as a “hospital within a hospital,” has only one way in or out. Furthermore, admitted patients are isolated from one another other in separate rooms equipped with Wi-Fi.

Thankfully, not a single health care worker from Rafik Hariri University Hospital has been infected despite the disproportionate number of coronavirus patients the facility has treated.

This, Hassoun explains, is due to the preparations made ahead of the outbreak in Lebanon which included training staff and securing crucial personal protective equipment.

In addition, the hospital had the benefit of having previously dealt with SARS and Ebola which Hassoun says prepared staff to deal with the outbreak.

“We had experience with Ebola ... which is a much more difficult illness than coronavirus because Ebola is airborne and much more deadly,” Hassoun explains.

Despite the constant concern, the health care workers at Rafik Hariri University Hospital remain calm and hopeful. “We are fine, thank God, so long as we are able to control it,” Hassoun says.

“This is my duty as a doctor. I hope citizens do their duty and stay at home. Coronavirus is not something small and for now there is no medicine.





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