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Closer to the Coronavirus than Anyone

Ida Katan, 67, senior radiographer, Sharon Hospital, Petah Tikva

About a month ago, Sharon Hospital was converted into a center designated solely to treating coronavirus patients. As at other hospitals around the country, Sharon – which, together with Beilinson Hospital, is part of Rabin Medical Center – radiographers are a crucial link in the system that’s battling the outbreak of the virus, because it wreaks havoc on the lungs. Theirs is also quite a hazardous job because, unlike many medical personnel, radiographers can’t make due by using a remote plasma screen: To do their job, they must enter sickrooms and touch patients in order to do x-rays and other types of scans.

Ida Katan, a radiographer who lives in Oranit, a West Bank settlement that straddles the Green Line near Rosh Ha’ayin, was supposed to have retired in February, after 44 years on the job. She opted to stay on for another 18 months, and the word at Sharon is that, despite her age, Katan specifically wanted to work with coronavirus patients.

“I extended my contract, because there aren’t enough radiographers – it’s a field where there’s a shortage of personnel,” she explained. “And I’m glad I did, because I have the great privilege of working at this particular time.”

Hasn’t the time come for you to be relaxing with your grandchildren?

“My family is definitely afraid. My daughters tell me, ‘Take retirement now.’ But I have to help, like everyone else here. I am deputy chief radiographer, and I’ve asked members of our staff who never do night shifts – mothers of small children, some with risk factors – to work longer shifts. They all agreed. It’s terrific to end your working life in a place like this, even if it’s Sisyphean labor.”

What does your job involve?

“You have to raise and lower coronavirus patients, be physically close, give them something to drink before a CT. If this is a war, then we are on the front line, but even so, we’re transparent to the system. In the media they talk about nurses, doctors, never about radiographers.”

Why is that, do you suppose?

“I guess we don’t have good enough public relations. You know, we’re an integral part of a physician’s work; there is hardly a medical profession that doesn’t require X-rays or CTs. The public calls us X-ray technicians, but we’re absolutely not technicians. We’re required to have a great deal of training, a broad knowledge of medicine – not just technical – and direct contact with the patient. Hardly anyone goes into the profession today, even though it’s fascinating and offers a great many possibilities.”

Why aren’t there enough radiographers?

“Because of the salary. A beginning radiographer – you need an academic degree and three years of training – earns 6,000 shekels [about $1,700] a month. That’s for working 17 hours a day, sometimes two shifts, and on Shabbat and holidays. At my age I sometimes work 24 hours straight, then I get some sleep and get called back in the afternoon. No one lets you off easy. It’s important to say that I am a senior radiographer, I have nothing to grumble about. My salary is 13,000 shekels. But it’s utterly insane work, and extremely difficult physically.”

How is the protective equipment you’re getting?

“The protection is all right, but only for now. Let’s see what things will be like in two weeks. The equipment is running out. I see what’s happening in other places. Already there aren’t proper uniforms like there were at the start. There’s a shortage of Septol, the standard disinfectant. It used to be available everywhere, but today you have to order it and bring it in. I walk through the ward and see empty Septol bottles. I’m also hearing about hospitals without face masks and overalls. I’m afraid they’ll give out inferior masks, or robes instead of overalls.”

Have you had interesting talks with coronavirus patients?

“The truth is that I was traumatized by one case. Someone arrived, amiable and in good spirits, who had just returned from abroad, and there was a suspicion that she was infected. ‘Just let it not be the coronavirus,’ she said. It turned out that she was infected, and her deterioration was shocking.

“Within two days her condition became serious, and after 10 days, she suddenly died. I couldn’t sleep at night. People saw me; I couldn’t speak. It did something bad to me.”

Some people have compared the coronavirus to the flu.

“It’s nothing like the flu. What are they talking about – flu? People hardly ever get hospitalized with flu. The coronavirus attacks both of the lungs. We haven’t seen anything like it. With the flu, maybe one elderly person or two gets hit in the lung on one side.”

Have you had other conversations with patients?

“I’m sorry to say it, but in the past few days, we’ve only had ventilated patients here. There’s no one to talk to. And in the future, there are going to be more patients and more who are seriously ill. Not long ago I did a scan of a religious man of 49 who has 13 children – they were all infected, and his wife, too.”

Aren’t you afraid because of your age? Maybe you should let the younger people handle things this time?

“Despite my age, I am not considered to be at risk. I am very strong, and I believe that even if I do get infected, I won’t get sick. And also any facility designated specifically for coronavirus patients is safer than a regular hospital, where they don’t know who’s sick. I am not afraid of COVID-19, only of the quarantine – I wouldn’t want to have to stay home for two weeks, because I love to work.”

Najla Masri Awad, 36, social worker at Galilee Medical Center, Nahariya

For five years, Najla Masri Awad treated Syrians who had been wounded in their country’s civil war. “And now we have the coronavirus. There’s always something new,” she says. And this virus is generating a host of troubles.

“Besides the regular problems that we’re still dealing with, there’s all this fear and anxiety, which the medical staff also feel. Another problem is that the hospitals don’t allow visitors. We are the ones who have to help get approval for exceptional cases. For example, there was a young woman [not ill with COVID-19] who had had a stroke and was near death. Her parents wanted to come in to say their farewells to her, but because of the coronavirus we needed a special permit.

“A large number of elderly patients are alone, because their families are in quarantine. There was one elderly person whom we wanted to discharge, but his son and daughter were in quarantine. There was no place to release him to. We speak a lot with the families of the coronavirus patients. I’ve become a social worker for the doctors, too – we have a whole team that is in quarantine.”

How do you keep coronavirus patients calm?

“There are relaxation exercises; we’ve learned to do what’s called spiritual caregiving. For example, prayers for those who are believers and religiously observant, or meditation. Each patient to his or her own. We don’t actually meet with them, we speak to them via screens.”

What do your friends think about the fact that you’re treating coronavirus patients?

“It really frightens some of the moms, and they are afraid of [coming into contact with] my children, because we are in a high-risk group. On the other hand, there are some who are very appreciative. People standing on their balconies and applauding. The kids’ teachers took pictures of people applauding and sent them to me specially. It made me happy.”

Have you encountered racism?

“What does being racist mean? As a social worker I am supposed to be empathetic and understand where people’s anger is coming from. Maybe someone put those thoughts into their head. People hear me speaking Arabic and say, ‘You don’t look anything like an Arab,’ so I say that that’s what I am, an Arab. Then they say, ‘You must be a Christian.’ And I say: ‘Muslim.’ And they say, ‘You don’t look it.’ What are Muslims supposed to look like?”

How much do you and your colleagues earn?

“A social worker with a master’s degree who works three-quarters’ time earns between 6,000 and 7,000 shekels, gross. And I am a doctoral student. But that’s how it is. Social workers are born to the profession. You have to have empathy [when you hear] hard, unimaginable stories.”

It seems to me that you yourselves need social workers.

“Our work isn’t simple; there are going to be more problems in the future. The coronavirus will have a great many emotional consequences – it’s something that we as social workers are going to have to cope with when the wave passes. The friendship between us, the social workers, keeps us sane.”

Natasha Blausov, 50, director of quality control in a microbiology laboratory, Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer

Over the years, neither the media nor the general public have had any particular interest in people working in medical labs. But now, during the pandemic, the previously anonymous microbiologists are on the front lines, and every one of them seems to have an opinion about the various types of COVID-19 tests, and the speed in which the results are delivered.

Blausov has been working in Sheba’s labs for 22 years. She had planned to celebrate her 50th birthday with her partner on a gondola in Venice, but the virus forced her to cancel the vacation, and she’s spending her time in the fluorescent-lit rooms and hallways of Sheba.

“Even though it’s difficult and the pressure is over the top, we are trying to maintain the quality of our work,” she says. “We are given a sample, we have to provide a quality and accurate answer as quickly as possible. For years we only worked mornings, with someone on call in the evening. Now the lab is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Everyone has been mobilized, not just the permanent staff but students and volunteers, too. You can have a PhD in biology, but you’ll open and close containers and be happy you’re doing it. There’s plenty of work, but we are pleased and feel we have a mission. Actually, we’ve become ‘addicted’ to the coronavirus.”

What do you mean?

“If an hour goes by without work, we get bored and look for something to do. People like to call this a tough time, but I prefer to say that it’s an interesting and tough time.”

Nice to hear that you and your colleagues are enjoying it.

“We enjoy the fact that we have set up such a fine, safe system. We have volunteers coming in who worked in the oncology or children’s wards. They don’t have a clue about microbiology, and still they come and help. It’s heartwarming.”

And your family?

“The family is supportive. I see them only in video calls.”

Suddenly you’ve become heroes, people who hold the fate of the world in their gloves.

“For years we really were invisible – not that it bothered me.”

Are you saying ‘I told you so’?

“It’s not in my nature to say that, but I’m happy to be interviewed and say how important this profession is, after it was neglected for years. It’s time for us to be on the map. It’s already years that the labs have been very busy. In normal times, Israeli lab workers carry out twice as many tests as their counterparts in Europe, so you can imagine what things are like now with the virus. There aren’t enough paid positions available in the labs. Our collective agreement with the Health Ministry hasn’t been reviewed for years. A beginning lab worker makes 6,000 shekels a month, and it might even be less than that.”

Will you go on strike after this crisis?

“We went out in protest twice, and it didn’t lead to anything. Our terms of employment haven’t improved for 30 years. I identify with the woman who said, ‘You invested millions in soccer players – go and ask them to help out.’ It’s time the world invested in science. We need to invest less in weapons and more in science, because good will only come from there, that’s where help for humanity will come from.”

Are you afraid of being infected?

“None of our workers is sick. I feel safer in the coronavirus labs than at home. I’m protected by two robes, two pairs of gloves, an N-95 face mask, a face shield and something that protects my head. I look like an astronaut. Plus the room is ventilated, and I open the test tubes under a special hood.”

I understand that the testing process is too slow, and that the Israel Defense Forces’ Sayeret Matkal commando unit was being sent in to streamline things. Has it helped?

“There are all kinds of technologies, but you can’t use a technology without first looking it over carefully. Sometimes working faster means working less well. Speed cannot be the most important principle here; what’s most important is credibility.”

Do you have coronavirus humor in the lab?

“We joke that children are sitting at home, idle, and that they’re the least at-risk population, so maybe we should put them to work. Why shouldn’t they be on the front lines and doing tests in the lab instead of us?”

Mustafa Abu Ramila, 29, cleaner at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Jerusalem

If proper hygiene is always a priority in the world of health care, it’s especially critical during the current epidemic – a situation more dangerous than ever, for example, for cleaning employees. According to one physician, these workers “are at the bottom of the food chain,” but they are also among the relatively few members of the medical teams whose job requires them to enter patients’ rooms and come in direct contact with them. They must also clean up after patients leave – whether they have been discharged or they have died.

In an interview last week with Al Jazeera in London, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the “crisis has emphasized just how unequal our planet is, how unequal our societies are in the U.S.A., Britain and Europe,” and went on to speak of the great respect due to key workers, including cleaners who are frequently ignored and underpaid. It’s hard to imagine a senior politician in Israel doing that.

Abu Ramila, who lives in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood – on the seamline between the city’s eastern and western sections – has been working for eight years as a cleaner in Shaare Zedek, after being unable to find a job as a computer technician, for which he was trained. He’s one of three cleaning people in the hospital’s existing coronavirus ward, and will also work in another such ward that is now being set up.

“At first I didn’t know what this virus is,” he admits. “I underwent special training for three days so that I would understand how and what to clean. My boss told me I should call even in the middle of the night, if I don’t feel safe.”

Abu Ramila’s cleaning shifts last 10 to 12 hours. Each time he enters the ward, he first spends eight minutes scrubbing down and putting on protective gear; every time he leaves, he takes a 20-minute shower. But that doesn’t necessarily reassure him.

“It’s scary,” he says. “All I think about is how to get out fast. One time I cried during work – I saw the sick people and started to think about my wife and daughter. I was worried about how they would get by if I were to get sick. I cleaned and cried. But in the end this is our job, as cleaners. If everyone was afraid and didn’t want to enter these rooms, who would do the cleaning? There would be a problem.”

Are there cleaners not willing to go into coronavirus patients’ rooms?

“Yes, many are afraid, but it’s in God’s hands. And the truth is that when I was a cleaner in intensive care and oncology, I had to deal with even harder situations. People died before my eyes. I’ve seen everything. But here there’s more work. Not long ago I had to clean the room of a coronavirus patient who had died. It took me two hours to clean a small room. There is a lot of equipment in these places.”

Abu Ramila isn’t eager to answer when asked whether people have made remarks about his being an Arab. “The virus doesn’t know who is a Jew and who is an Arab – we all breathe the same air,” he says. “It’s playing havoc with a whole generation, no matter what your nationality is. The virus is not racist.”

Have you had a chance to talk to some of the COVID-19 patients?

“I’m afraid to ask them how they feel. They might scream. Some are irritated about being stuck in the ward, others want to talk, so I talk to them a little and rush out.”

How much do you earn?

“A cleaner working a morning shift makes 5,500 shekels, and you get twice as much for evening work. I work every night from 10 until 6:30 A.M. And then I go to sleep in the morning.”

I called yesterday and it took hours before you answered.

“I was totally dead yesterday. There was a huge amount of work. I did five rooms, because patients were discharged. People leave us incredible amounts of garbage behind. They leave plastic bags, food that’s a few days old – even though there are garbage cans. My job is to leave the place squeaky clean. Believe me, I wish this virus would get out of this country and that things will be all right for everybody.”

Original: Roy Arad – HAARETZ