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OPINION | Richard van Zyl: No more steam – The third wave has taken its toll on ICU doctors news of 2021

OPINION | Richard van Zyl: No more steam – The third wave has taken its toll on ICU doctors news of 2021


Doctors working in Covid ICU words are exhausted, writes the author.


Doctors working in Covid ICU words are exhausted, writes the author.

Professor Richard van Zyl-Smit is a consultant pulmonologist working in Groote Schuur’s ICU Covid wards. He writes of his utter exhaustion of dealing with the third wave, which has taken its toll.


 I have run out of words. 

Come to the end of the road. 

The fuel tank is empty. 

End of the line. 

Reached the end of my tether. 

‘Kannie meer nie Korporaal’. 

Scraping the barrel. 

Run out of gas. 

Have nothing more to give. 

End of the month salty cracks. 

Dead on our feet. 

We have run out of steam. 

The fire has gone out. 

“Don’t have the power Captain”. 

“I can’t tell if it is killing me or making me stronger”. 

The tire is flat. 

There is no more fizz in the Coca-Cola. 

The taps are dry. 

The fridge is empty. 

It is hard to find words to explain that you are tired and emotionally exhausted continuously. It is hard to not sound like a drama queen, dripping tap, or a stuck record. 

It is hard to balance our feelings when there are other crises around the world. 

It is difficult to explain how it feels to tell a husband that his wife, the mother of his 11-year-old child, is dying, and after 22 days on a ventilator, we need to take her off life support.

It is not that these conversations don’t happen all the time in the hospital. 

It is not that people don’t die every day. 

It is not that we or they are necessarily special in any way. It just is. 

We have emotions. We are dead on our feet, our tanks are empty, and this Covid third wave has gone on for a very long time, and we are going very deep. 

READ | Opinion: ICU Dr Amy Louise-Collyer: Covid-19 vaccine – light in the darkness of the pandemic

I don’t want you to feel sad or sorry for us. I don’t want you to compare our lot with those of others and make judgment calls. 

I don’t want you to call us heroes- we are long past that. We don’t have the power, ‘ons kannie meer nie’, we have run out of steam. 

I don’t want you to think we are complaining or feel sorry for ourselves, but we are scraping the barrel, and our fuel tanks are empty. 

It would help if you didn’t think us as ungrateful to have a job when others don’t or are not doing our best. It would help if you didn’t believe that this is over. 

I do want you to get vaccinated. I do want you to stop living like there is no Covid, and that “99% recovery” somehow means that this thing is not real. 

READ | Opinion: Mike Roussos: My Covid-19 ICU experience and dance with death

I do want you to stop spreading anti-vaccine misinformation and harassing us for medications that don’t work. 

I want you to take care of yourself and be aware that if you get really, really sick, we might not be able to save your life. I do want you to have a job; I want you to have an income; I want you to get all your friends and family vaccinated. I do want you to do life and do things that are not Covid. 

I just want you to know and to see. 

And I want you to stop asking me if I am okay – I am tired of lying.

– Professor Richard van Zyl-Smit is a consultant pulmonologist at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital. He has written a collection of essays and self-published them in a book called ‘Thoughts on a Saturday morning’.

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