One year into the pandemic: Solidarity and support for medical and health workers in fighting coronavirus

An unusually warm, March day in Banja Luka. The standard buzz around the Clinic for Infectious Diseases of the University Clinical Centre of Republika Srpska is interrupted for a moment by staff dressed in protective clothing, from head to toe. Only their eyes show under protective face shields and masks. Calmly and resolutely, they ask everyone to step away from the entrance to the Clinic.

One paramedic ahead, a patient in the middle, another paramedic behind. They are taking the so-called unclean way to the hospital ward. “It is according to the protocol”, explains the Head of the Clinic for Infectious Diseases, Prof. Dr. Antonija Verhas. “One of the paramedics instantly disinfects every step taken by a person infected with the coronavirus.”

Protective equipment is a must also in elevators

Only authorised staff, fully dressed in protective equipment, enter the parts of the hospital where the infected are treated. “Shoe covers, a suit, two pairs of gloves, a mask, a hat, googles, face shield,” says the Head Nurse of the Clinic for Infectious Diseases with the RS University and Clinical Centre, Jelena Petrović. This full set is disposable and used only once – so far more than one million pieces of protective equipment have reached hospitals in Republika Srpska as a part of the European Union’s programme of assistance to our country in the fight against coronavirus, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Protective equipment is not reserved only for hospital staff within the ward. The driver is also wearing full protective gear, from head to toe, while loading and transporting hundreds of kilograms of infectious waste to a special location. “I’m used to it, although it’s not easy at temperatures above 40,” he added in passing.

Treatment protocol with disinfection and vigilance

We have not even entered the Clinic yet, and one team member who just escorted the patient in, is already coming back. Every day, he carries 10 litres of chlorine on his back, and uses it to tirelessly disinfect the hospital.

First thing in the morning, the four of us will spray every inch of the hallway, waiting room, entrance, reception,” says Aleksandar Anđelić, a member of the disinfection team. Each patient, who must be hospitalized, is escorted to the Clinic by the members of this team from the admission part. In the past year, thousands of them have walked the same path. From the entrance right, then left into the elevator. On both sides there is a paramedic, with only their eyes showing. From the elevator, left again into the red zone. Where the infected ones are staying.

It does sound awful,” says Aleksandar, but often in a short exchange on the way to the ward, patients show they care about the medics too. “They tell us to take good care of ourselves; that it will pass.” As he leaves onto a new task, Aleksandar also mentions bright moments: “When I see patients recovered and leaving, I am nothing short of thrilled!

The hardest part is when we lose a colleague

In the Clinic itself, it seems to us as if nothing special is happening. “Now we are in the clean zone”, explains the Head of the Clinic for Infectious Diseases, Prof. Dr. Antonija Verhas.

The beginning of the pandemic was marked by the unknowns, fear, anxiety. “I recall we had exactly six isolation rooms ready. Now that I mention it, it sounds naive, even funny,” says Dr. Verhas. Soon they had to equip the first and the ground floor of the Clinic for the reception of patients, and ward by ward was transformed into COVID hospitals. In the most difficult months, from summer to autumn, 130 people worked in this Clinic.

There were all sorts of days. It is very difficult when you treat someone you know well, when you have to separate professionalism from friendship. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues lost the battle.

They overcome difficult moments with the solidarity and support from all, especially younger medical workers, who, according to Dr. Verhas, thanks to their work and commitment, restore hope in the good.

The Head Nurse of the Clinic for Infectious Diseases, Jelena Petrović, says that the early days were the most difficult. “Because of fear, I separated from my family for three months. I was scared to hug my six-year-old child,” she says through tears. Despite many difficult days and nights behind her, there are also events that she will remember this period by.

One such event is the arrival of assistance in medical and protective equipment donated by the European Union on several occasions to the RS University and Clinical Centre. “We knew that they were thinking of us, that they cared for our patients, that we were not forgotten,” said the staff from the Clinic for Infectious Diseases of the RS University and Clinical Centre.

Testing and vaccines – the two burning topics

Phones keep ringing at the Republika Srpska Public Health Institute. Citizens and journalists are eager to learn nuts and bolts of the vaccination process. Director of this institution, Branislav Zeljković, explains that in addition to professional training, the Institute provides consumables, from PCR tests, extractions, to protective equipment for medical workers throughout Republika Srpska. “At the times when it was very difficult to get protective equipment, when its price fluctuated, the help of the European Union proved to be vital as we were able to ensure continuity in the protection and work of all,” stressed the Director of the Institute, Branislav Zeljković.

Experts from regional hubs came to the Institute for trainings on how to operate PCR devices. That is why modern laboratory machines, donated through the European Union assistance programme, are important as these help the professional staff to efficiently obtain the necessary data, says Zeljković.

The European Union has so far donated medical equipment and supplies worth almost BAM 1,400,000 to the Republika Srpska Public Health Institute as a part of its assistance programme to BiH in the fight against coronavirus, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.