Angy Rabothatha’s phone is never off. The Tshwane nurse makes around fifty calls to Covid-19 positive patients a day, and after-hours, she is available to them too.
Even on Rabothatha’s birthday – she turned 43 on 20 May – she fielded calls while celebrating under lockdown with her husband Phillimon, a labour agent, and children Mpho (18) and Mohau (7).
It was a festive day at their home in Soshanguve with surprise gifts and a dinner of lamb, spinach and savoury rice, malva pudding and cheesecake.
Rabothatha joined the Gauteng Department of Health in 2007. Three years later she was promoted to district programme coordinator for the child health, communicable disease and outbreak response unit.
Presently, she is back at work in her central Pretoria office, making calls from eight in the morning until five – sometimes six in the afternoon. Rabothatha is part of the Tshwane tracing team of 30 people that include nurses, researchers and other volunteers. There are similar teams across the country.
“I get calls when I’m at home, too,” she says. “I always answer. You never know, maybe somebody needs your help. I never put my phone off. Luckily my husband is very supportive. He’ll be like: ‘Ja neh, better take that call, my love.’ When you have a family who supports you, pursuing your passion is easy.”
Over our WhatsApp call, Rabothatha’s voice is warm and laced with laughter as she talks about her background. Born in Rustenburg, she was mostly raised by her granny. When her grandmother passed away, she lived with her mother; and when her mother passed away, she lived with her uncle and aunt. “None of them had money,” says Rabothatha. “But what they had was love.”
It was her aunt who inspired her career. “My aunt was a professional nurse. She inspired me. I loved nursing from an early age. You know, in matric when you write that essay about what you want to become one day? I wrote about wanting to become a nurse. I wrote about the difference I wanted to make, the hope I wanted to bring into people’s lives, the smiles I wanted to see on their faces. It was in Tswana. I got a B for that subject.”
A heart-breaking blow
In October last year, fate dealt Rabothatha’s family a heartbreaking blow. Her and Phillimon’s middle child, Tshego, (13) succumbed to complications following bone-marrow surgery at the Netcare Unitas Hospital in Centurion.
“My youngest son, Tshego’s brother, Mohau, donated the bone-marrow,” says Rabothatha.
Tshego got sick with leukaemia when he was six years old. Throughout his illness, my son would say: ‘Don’t worry mummy, God is in charge. Don’t worry mummy, this too shall pass.’ He was a strong boy, and he got better, but then went into remission last year in June,” she says.
Tshego is buried at the Sandfontein cemetery, which Rabothatha passes twice a day, on her way to work and back.
“I won’t lie, it is painful every day,” she says. “It wasn’t easy. God is the only one who can mend a broken heart; God carried us, my husband and I. Believing in God really helped me get more compassion for people. That love you get, you also give it to others.”
A professional challenge
Now, Rabothatha is pouring her love into patients who test positive for COVID-19 – a professional challenge like none before.
“Outbreaks we’ve had in the past. There have been food poisoning here and there, measles here and there, but this COVID-19, it is the biggest of them all,” she says.
“I call up to fifty people a day. If you test positive, we want to know when did you do the test. Are you in Pretoria, are you at home, where are your close contacts – your family? We want to know your comorbidities, can you isolate where you are? I mean, some of these patients live [with] nineteen people in a house. So, we arrange for them to go to an isolation site. We have transport that pick them up at home, taking them to the sites, and then back home again afterwards. After 14 days we call them again to check up how they are. If they’re well after 14 days, we close the file.”
Health authorities differentiate between quarantine and isolation. Quarantine is the separation and restricted movement of people exposed to COVID-19, to see if they become sick; while isolation is for patients who have tested positive for the virus.
“Many people who test positive for COVID-19 are shocked, some of them are frustrated,” says Rabothatha. “We reassure them, educate them, tell them what should happen. I’m on the phone all day. When we started, I knew all the patients, I could remember all their names. Now there are too many. Still, those you have long conversations with, those struggling to accept the infection, the ones you have to educate; those names stay in your mind for some time.”
Born to be a nurse
Spotlight first learned of Rabothatha’s extraordinary work while interviewing patient Bets King on her quarantine experience at a Johannesburg quarantine facility. King, originally from Upington, lives in London with her husband. She returned to South Africa to arrange Visa documents on May 28 and was placed under quarantine at the Birchwood Hotel in Boksburg.
She describes the experience as an “ordeal”, as the meals did not cater for her gluten intolerance. She also has an auto-immune disease – Hashimoto’s disease – which added additional stress when she tested positive for COVID-19.
“On the fourth day of quarantine, they gave us the option to have a private or government (through public health system) COVID-test,” King tells Spotlight. “I first opted for the government test, then realised it was a nose swab. The private test (Lancet Laboratories) was a throat swab, which I thought would hurt less, but it cost R850. I could not afford it, but fortunately my husband sent me some money, and I had it done.
“The next day, on day five, everyone’s test results came back, except mine. Eventually at 11pm, I got a SMS that I’m positive. I phoned my husband and cried my eyes out. The trauma, tears and heartache, I cannot describe. It made no sense, as everyone who had been seated around me on the Qatar flight from London, tested negative.”
Amid this trauma, King received a call from Rabothatha. “Then this nurse Angy from Pretoria called me,” recalls King. “She was such a nice person, the nicest person I had spoken to since I had left London. She was assigned to me by the government. She said to me: ‘Love, are you coughing?’ I said to her: ‘Of course I’m coughing, I am a smoker.’ She said to me: ‘Love, any time day or night, if you need me, phone me.’ Nurse Angy was an absolute star, the nicest person; she was born to be a nurse.”
Later two additional COVID-19 tests quelled King’s fears as the results came back negative. King maintains that within this ordeal, Rabothatha’s kindness was her lone beacon of light.
Nursing is a calling
Speaking to Spotlight, Rabothatha says she remembers King. “Elizabeth (Bets) was so special to me. She was crying so much. She said I was the first person who would actually listen to her. She said she felt so alone. She was so grateful.”
Where does Rabothatha find the kindness that underpins her work?
“For nursing, it really is a calling,” she says.
Rabothatha qualified at the Excelsius Nursing College in Klerksdorp in 2000, where her favourite subject was community health. She was not brought up in a Christian family and only discovered God in her tertiary years. “I realised I wanted to walk this walk with God,” she says.
This too shall pass
Her advice on the coronavirus pandemic?
“The deaths we have had, sadly it’s mostly those patients with comorbidities,” says Rabothatha. “But there have been much, much more recoveries than deaths, though, which is nice. I want people to know, there’s always hope. Testing positive is not the end of the world. Don’t panic. There are people at the health department who are there to support you. There are people walking with you on this path. Just stay calm. This too shall pass.”