Stellenbosch University
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Students launch ‘We Fight Back COVID’ initiative
Author: Development & Alumni / Ontwikkeling & Alumni
Published: 11/05/2020

​Students and alumni from the healthcare fields at Stellenbosch University (SU) and other South African universities have come together to fight back against the COVID-19 pandemic through five initiatives they believe can make the biggest impact right now.

“As a doctor in training one does feel a sense of responsibility to contribute in any way you can as we fight this pandemic. Being a doctor does not start on the day you receive your degree, but much earlier based on the commitment you make to do this work. It also feels like the right thing to do," says Luné Smith, a fifth-year medical student at SU's Tygerberg campus and one of the coordinators of We Fight Back COVID.

We Fight Back COVID consists of volunteers that provide mothers and babies in lockdown in the kangaroo mother care (KMC) wards and lodger areas at Tygerberg Hospital with essential items during their stay; assist with the manufacturing of face shields for healthcare workers at Tygerberg hospital and other healthcare centres; and make, distribute and educate the public on how to safely use and take care of face masks. Volunteers are also involved in making homemade spacers to use with metered dose inhalers (MDIs) for patients who have bronchospasms (in other words, a tight chest or are feeling breathless) and need to take aerolised medication during the COVID-19 pandemic; and are sharing scientific-based information on the virus on the organisation's Facebook and Instagram pages.

While Smith drives the We Fight Back COVID initiatives with support from volunteers, they are guided by Dr Suretha Kannenberg from the Division of Dermatology in the Medicine Department at SU, who acts as liaison between the Tygerberg students and SU.

As part of their support to mothers in the KMC wards and lodger areas, students at Tygerberg campus distribute donated toiletries, baby clothes, and snacks, and provide mothers with examples of educational activities they can do to aid their babies' development. Occupational Therapy students have also created a journal for the mothers to record their babies' milestones.

“These moms are dealing with a lot emotionally and are often alone with nothing to do, so this helps alleviate their stress."

Volunteers also assist the Orthopaedic Surgery Department under the guidance of Dr Rudolph Venter, a lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences and an orthopaedic surgeon, to 3D print visors to protect those on the frontline of fighting the pandemic from getting infected. The first 140 visors were delivered to the Occupational Health Department in early April in order for it to be distributed at Tygerberg Hospital.

“We also delivered another 55 visors to our screening area and Orthopaedics Department, a further 110 visors to the Occupational Health Department, as well as 20 visors to the ICU at the hospital."

According to Smith, the mask making initiative has led to 40 masks being distributed to mothers in the KMC and lodger areas and 60 to campus security.

“Love starts at home and what would be the point if we try to save the world, but our home is falling apart. Our security personnel keep us safe on campus, so this is the least we can do for them."

Another critical and potentially lifesaving initiative that volunteers are involved in, is the production of spacers using plastic bottles.

“COVID-19 is a disease that is spread through droplets and has the potential to become aerolised when a person with bronchospasms uses a nebuliser. The medical industry is therefore moving away from nebulisation in all healthcare settings as it carries a theoretical risk of aerosolising and spreading the virus," explains Smith.  

Metered dose inhalers (MDIs) such as asthma pumps, which administer aerolised medication in measured amounts, along with spacers will instead be used. Spacers are tubes that are attached to MDIs and helps medication get into the lungs much easier as it contains the ejected aerosolised medication, allowing the user more time to breathe it in while they are unable to control their breathing properly during the bronchospasm.

“There is concrete evidence that home-made spacers using a bottle with a hole cut in it is just as effective as commercially available ones and seeing that we'll soon have a massive demand for these, we have started collecting these bottles and turning them into spacers. The community is also decorating these bottles with a message of hope to promote a spirit of camaraderie amongst people."

You can follow the group on Facebook (We Fight Back COVID) and Instagram  (@we.fight.back.covid). 

Photo 1:  Student volunteers and two nurses outside a COVID-19 screening facility where the students dropped off the 3D printed visors they made to help keep healthcare workers safe. At the back from the left are students Venuchka Vermeulen, Nicola Duvenhage, and Abdul Baasit Isaacs, with Luné Smith kneeling in the front. (Photo: Sokwanda Njeza)

Photo 2: Student volunteers ready to deliver packages to moms in the KMC wards at Tygerberg Hospital. From the left are Jemma Kent, Anandi De Witt, Iza-Mari Gaybba, Luné Smith, and Sangeun Lee. (Photo: Sokwanda Njeza)