Groote Schuur nurses share their stories

Groote Schuur nurses Phumzile Mbangiswana and Theresa Wulff

It was International Nurses Day on Wednesday May 12, and two Groote Schuur Hospital nurses – one a rookie, the other a veteran – stand as examples of how the profession has changed over the years but also how its core values have stayed the same.

Sister Theresa Wulff, 55, of Diep River has been a nurse for 37 years and now works in the hospital’s clinical education department.

“The experience has been really challenging,” she says, “I always knew that I wanted to go into nursing.” She did her nurse training at Addington Hospital in Durban before coming to Cape Town in 1993.

In her time as a nurse, she worked in a hospital that was segregated due to apartheid, and she wore the old-style nurses’ uniform: a dress with stockings and the traditional nurse’s cap.

Things have changed a lot since then, she says, describing how nurses now use WhatsApp to ask for advice while they work.

Sister Wulff says it’s the daily interaction she has with all her colleagues that keeps her positive, and if she has a tough day she tells herself the “next day can’t be worse than the day before”.

She says Covid-19 has proven to be one of the biggest challenges she’s faced in her career.

“Initially we thought it was isolated elsewhere, though we had to prepare that it would be coming here,” she says.

Staff had to get used to working with protective breathing equipment (PBE) and wards had to be made Covid-19 ready.

“We had to look at providing emotional support for staff, and it was very scary with staff getting sick and losing colleagues who have died. It was uncertain times.”

Covid-19 has been a baptism of fire for Phumzile Mbangiswana, 23, who only started working at the hospital in February after he finished his nursing studies at Cape Peninsula University of Technology last year.

“It was difficult to start working in a global pandemic because last year I was doing my final year during Covid-19, so we could not reach our practical hours needed to finish our studies easily,” he says.

He now works in dermatology in the hospital’s medical department and says interacting with patients “comes naturally” to him.

He is still adapting to working with a PBE and a mask. Wearing surgical masks he says is a lot easier than the more tight-fitting N95 respirators that he says can make it hard to breathe and interact with patients.

There are days, he says, when he loves his job to the core, but there are also days that can be very draining, especially when a patient dies.

When he is not working, he enjoys watching series and going to the gym.

Hospital spokesman Alaric Jacobs says nurses make up the largest part of Groote Schuur’s staff. “The first interaction that anyone has in a ward is with a nurse. They are important to the health sector so we need to celebrate them and thank them for the great work they do at the hospital.”