News2020.04.22 08:00

Working in the ‘reactor’ of Covid-19. ‘The only similar feeling was on January 13’ – interview

Aida Murauskaitė, 2020.04.22 08:00

The head of Covid-19 department at Panevėžys Republican Hospital, Rimvydas Tumas, sees only one comparison with the crisis today – January 13, 1991, when Soviet troops killed 14 and injured hundreds in Vilnius, throwing medics into the deep.

“You should see the faces of medics who leave the room where an intubated patient is being reanimated – you can’t recognise them,” he said in an interview with “We call that place the ‘reactor’.”

The ‘reactor’, an allusion the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, was established in Lithuania’s fifth biggest city, Panevėžys, in mid-March. Since ten, four patients have been treated there that were diagnosed with serious illnesses alongside Covid-19. At least several more needed oxygen therapies.

“On the night from March 16 to 17, the director called me and said that our department is being activated,” said Tumas. “And that’s how it started.”

“The only similar feeling was only once, on January 13 [in 1991],” he said. That night, the Soviet troops killed 14 and injured hundreds of people in Vilnius, when Moscow attempted to topple the Lithuanian government which had declared independence on March 11, 1990.

Read more: Occupied but not silenced. January 13, 1991: the night when Soviets stormed LRT

“Then, we were all worried that patients would start piling in, we all rushed to the hospital,” he said. “But nothing like [in Vilnius] took place in Panevėžys. But the feeling today is similar to what we felt then.”

People arriving at the Covid-19 department are already ill with chronic conditions and exhibit severe symptoms of the coronavirus – fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle pain and tiredness, he said.

In one example, a person with fourth-stage pancreatic cancer arrived at the hospital and was subseqeuntly diganosed with Covid-19. Another person experienced heart and liver failure due to the virus.

“We were thrown into water on the first night without knowing how to swim, but while helping each other, we ended up learning,” said Tumas.

Keeping safe is an ever-present worry for the doctors. At first, they had to watch educational videos on how to dress for contagious environments.

“For us, surgical doctors, the change of clothes is a ritual,” said Tumas. “It’s not difficult to get dressed, it’s worse to get undressed.”

On their way to see Covid-19 patients, the medics get dressed in a waterproof surgical gown or an overall, followed by glasses, a hat, a respirator, overshoes, and two layers of gloves.

“You get dressed in clean clothes while being clean yourself, a colleague helps you tie it up,” said Tumas. “We have also brought mirrors, so we can see if we’re dressed properly, which doesn’t take that much time, up to 10 minutes.”

“The next question is how to get undressed,” he said. First, the first risk of contagion is when taking off the hoodie, especially for those who wear glasses. “On top of your glasses, you also wear protective glasses, and when you are taking them off, your own glasses start falling off, get skewed.”

“A person tries to grab them instinctively,” added Tumas. “If you’re with a face shield, it’s more convenient.”

If a medical worker can make do without glasses, it’s better to avoid wearing them, he added.

“When we take off the overall or gown, we take it off inside out, and in this stage, the colleagues do not assist you because it would be unsafe. If you’re well versed, it takes around 10–15 minutes.”

As healthcare facilities reported shortages of protective equipment countrywide, Tumas said they didn’t lack any as they were working in the coronavirus hotspot.

“The need for more equipment was more [felt] by those who do not have to deal with Covid-19 patients,” he added.

“It’s very good now that the [health] ministry regulated what level of protection is needed where,” said Tumas. “For example, now speaking with you [over the phone], I’m wearing a surgical gown and a facemask, while those who go to work with patients wear everything that’s needed.”

However, medics still need to conserve protective gear and carefully plan their rounds to Covid-19 patients.

“So it doesn’t become like, going there for half an hour, then coming back, then remembering you need to do something, then getting dressed again,” said Tumas. “Everything needs to be done slowly and it has to be well thought-out. After all, we economise at home, too.”

Tumas called on people not to relax and take the threat seriously.

“We don’t know the exact solution for this situation, we don’y have a vaccine, there’s much we don’t know about the virus,” he said.

“I understand that the country cannot survive without the economy, but the easing of restrictions is happening definitely too soon.”

Medical workers at Panevėžys Republican Hospital underwent tests for Covid-19. And although the results were negative, it can change very quickly.

“I’m very proud of my staff. No one said I don’t want to go, I will not do it, it’s too difficult, or I’m afraid,” said Tumas. “But we all understand that the [test] result today is negative, but we can get infeced tomorrow.”

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