#WomenofUP: ‘COVID-19 challenged us: we had to gain new skills and knowledge in the storm’ – UP critical care specialist and physician

Posted on August 31, 2021

“The past 18 months have been like building a ship in the middle of a storm, as each successive COVID-19 wave hit,” says the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Professor Veronica Ueckermann, a critical care specialist and physician who rose to the enormous challenge of heading up the COVID-19 team at the Tshwane District Hospital. She also served as the acting head of the Division of Infectious Diseases and medical ICU at the Tshwane Steve Biko Academic Hospital, following the death of the former head, Professor Anton Stoltz, in May 2020.

“Prof Stoltz was my PhD supervisor, friend and colleague, and he had a phenomenal reputation. The agreement was that if one of us got ill, we would cover each other’s work, and so I had to take over from May,” says Prof Ueckermann, who was 39 at the time.

“There was a bit of hesitancy from some quarters about handing the reins to a relatively younger woman,” she adds. “But over time, people learn to trust you and I am fortunate to have incredible support from what we refer to as ‘the outbreak team’, which consists of over 40 people, many of them women in senior positions.

“Early in 2020, we realised that COVID-19 was going to be huge. What followed was a time of rapid preparation to set up the Tshwane District Hospital as a COVID-19-dedicated hospital for the whole of Tshwane, then training clinicians, nurses, pharmacists and all hospital staff in COVID-19 protocols and systems to manage the vast number of COVID-19 patients we anticipated. That became a reality as the first wave hit, then the second and third.

“Everyone pulls their weight, and there is incredible camaraderie in the team as we work very long hours. In addition to managing COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, we all have to do our routine academic work,” says Prof Ueckermann, who is part of a team that has done novel research on COVID-19 and published in esteemed international journals including Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine.

The team’s driving motivation is to give patients the best care and support possible. “Wearing tight masks and personal protective equipment for hours on end isn’t easy, but you don’t think about this when you are saving lives,” Prof Ueckermann says.

“As much as we have lost patients and colleagues, most people have survived. We have received so much gratitude from our patients, their families and communities – that’s what has kept us going this whole time. UP has also been hugely supportive, attending to all our needs – from psychological support to providing lunch for frontline staff.

“My family has also been incredible, especially during the first wave and lockdown. I would leave home before sunrise and come home in the dark. Our 9-year-old son would ask me why, when everyone has to stay at home during lockdown, do I have to go to work. I explained that it is because of how much I love him that we have to find a better future for everyone. I said that many of the people I was helping are moms of other little boys and girls. I also made a point of spending special time with him.

“My husband, Andre, has been wonderfully supportive, as has my mom, who is the strongest woman I know. She is a high school teacher and has always instilled in me and in all her students that we can achieve whatever we want to achieve. She lives her life this way; she did her honours and master’s when I was a child and she juggled being a mom while pursuing her studies. My dad gave her the room to be who she is and to excel, and that’s what my husband does for me.”

Prof Ueckermann says that COVID-19 has taught her to delegate more, and the whole team has learnt how to rapidly adapt. “You usually rely on your clinical skills and a solid foundation of knowledge, but this new disease challenged both; we had to gain new skills and knowledge in the storm.

“It’s not the end of COVID-19 by any means. There is so much misinformation, particularly on social media, and it is difficult for people to sift through what is fake and what is true, but I urge people to have some trust in medical science. The young people in our country also have to understand that COVID-19 is not age related. We have young patients with severe COVID-19 who don’t walk out of ICU, and if you spend time in the wards, as we do, you would choose to be vaccinated.”

- Author Department of Institutional Advancement

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