In January this year, Dr Kirstin Riley was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. A few months later, she was on the frontline of the COVID-19 battle.
Dr Riley (29), a Medical Officer in the Burns unit at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, doesn’t consider herself a hero. She has had to come to grips with tackling cancer, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, and raising a 1-year-old all whilst amid the hugely disruptive COVID-19 pandemic. Today, she is one of the many hardworking women in the public health system who continue to inspire others despite facing difficulties in their personal lives.
“We've gone from a place of laughter and hugs to avoiding each other through social distancing, we can't see each other's faces anymore and it seems as if everyone is cold and unapproachable,” Dr Riley confesses. “Even though we somehow still made our ward a happy and joyful place (for the kids and the staff), we can see the changes in our kids. It's not the same. I'm looking forward to the day when we can all see laughter and joy on each other's faces again,” she continues.
Like most frontline workers, her greatest fear is bringing home an illness and infecting her family, especially her daughter. “I get home now and immediately change and shower. She knows there are no hugs from mommy until I've changed,” she says.
“I have had to go through chemotherapy alone, multiple doctors’ visits and hospital admissions alone. It's a scary time, even though I "know" the system. To have cancer, be on active treatment and know that I have a decreased immune system is a scary thought at the best of times, throw in a pandemic and it can all seem a bit too much. Thankfully I have the most supportive family both at home and at work, who have gone above and beyond to make sure that I am safe during this pandemic,” says Dr Riley when pressed about how she’s experienced the pandemic while undergoing cancer treatment.
Keeping positive during the pandemic? “There’s less of the infamous Cape Town traffic,” she jokes. “Seriously, it’s wonderful to see how close of a relationship you develop with your colleagues when you are in these trying times together. The knowledge that this will end, it might not be soon, but it will end. We are stronger together, none of us are in this alone.”
One piece of advice to the public? “Masks go over your nose! Be kind to each other and we will get through this, together.”