By the time Linda Djougang clocks in this morning, she has already been up two hours. She arrives at Tallaght Hospital just after sunrise and won’t leave until dusk has fallen. The journey from Drumcondra, via the city centre, takes an hour on a good day, but this being a Saturday, mere hours after An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has implemented further restrictions amid the battle against COVID-19, means co-ordinating Dublin Bus and Luas times requires exact planning and additional time. The alarm rings at 5.30am.
Djougang is no stranger to this routine having started her final year placement at Tallaght Hospital in early January, just weeks before the start of the Women’s Six Nations. She regularly worked through 13-hour shifts either side of training sessions with Adam Griggs‘ squad and was on duty the morning after standout performances in the home victories over Scotland and Wales at Energia Park. The 23-year-old embraces challenge and, by her very nature, rises above it.
But Djougang’s role as a student nurse, and indeed perspective on her job, on rugby and on life, has changed irrevocably in recent days. Today will be her fourth shift working on one of Tallaght Hospital’s COVID-19 positive wards, the nature of her nine-month internship dramatically transformed in the face of the escalating global and national health crisis. The word ‘normal’ is no longer part of her lexicon.
At 7.30am, the Ireland international will begin a critical day’s work. Her routine is now completely different to what it was, the safety measures to guard against the spread of the coronavirus stringent. No longer can Djougang greet her patients each morning for breakfast catch-ups and chats about rugby, rather she is only permitted to be in the ward for strict 15-minute windows. Either side of entering, she must wash her hands religiously and chart her exact movements. It’s for her own sake, but just as importantly for her patients, her friends, her family and her community.
“It’s scary because you don’t really know what you’re going to encounter when you arrive for your shift,” Djougang tells IrishRugby.ie. “A week ago, it was a standard medical ward like any other hospital around the world but now it’s a totally different environment. I have to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) all day. Hair net, gloves, a yellow gown, goggles. You have to be fully covered. You’re scared for the patients and you’re scared for yourself.”
Working on the frontline caring for the nation’s most vulnerable patients, Djougang has borne witness to the devastating effects of the coronavirus. Her voice breaks at the other end of the phone when she explains the heartbreaking experience of losing one of her patients on Thursday. No one is immune, nobody exempt. COVID-19 does not discriminate.
“The ward has been filling up so quickly,” she explains. “You look at it and you question everything. Why aren’t people staying at home? Why aren’t they following Government advice? It’s scary. You see people dying at such a high rate. They’re not just numbers on the news. One of my patients passed away on Thursday without any family with them. We can’t have visitors in to see them and people are dying alone. We are all doing our best but it’s scary because in some cases, you know there is nothing you can do for that patient.”
Djougang continues: “It’s hard, it’s very sad. You know when you’re in there with patients some are dying and when you’re talking to them and caring for them, you know you could be the last person they ever see because no visitors are allowed. I’ve had to call a family to tell them bad news. We have received good training and support from the hospital and at the end of the day our jobs as nurses have not changed – this is what we have trained for – but it’s hard. There’s no escaping it. I go home and it’s there, on the news, on the radio, on the TV, on my phone. I am witnessing it every day.”
For a young nurse at the start of her career, Djougang admits, understandably, that being thrust into action amidst a pandemic of this severity has been, at times, daunting and at best ‘an eye opener that will teach her a lot of things as a person.’ But, just as her attitude on the pitch has made Djougang an influential player for Ireland, her application, commitment and unwavering positivity has made her an invaluable asset at a time when healthcare workers around the country are standing up and answering the call.
“I was thinking about that this morning when I was doing my gym programme,” she says. “It’s the exact same thing as I do on the rugby pitch. I’m representing my country. I always feel so privileged to be in this position to help and I love doing what I do. For me, I have a duty to answer my country’s call and that’s what I have been doing for the last couple of months.
“I always wanted to be a nurse or else I wouldn’t have studied it and right now it’s more important than ever before. The whole country is in crisis and it’s my duty to do my best for Ireland and for my patients. It’s a team effort for us and I’ll go in tomorrow and take over from my colleagues who have been there all night. We’re all in this together.”
Djougang’s words ring true as she isn’t the only member of the Ireland Women’s squad on the frontline, putting their own health at risk for the good of the nation. Claire McLaughlin has spent the past week on duty in the Accident and Emergency Department at Ulster Hospital in Belfast, while out-half Claire Keohane is preparing to join the effort to tackle COVID-19 as a recently qualified doctor.
“The message is just to stay at home and follow the advice,” Djougang, who admits her 39 hours of work a week are likely to be increased as resources are stretched further, pleads. “This virus kills and it kills fast. I have witnessed it and have been witnessing it every day. Stay at home, wash your hands and when you do have to go out, stay two metres away from people. It’s absolutely essential and if you do have to go out to the shops for food, let one person from the family or household go, not everybody.
“Just look after each other because there are patients in hospitals dying by themselves from this. Life is so precious and we need to look after each other more than ever. We need to work together as a team and as a nation. We’ll fight this.”
From the front row to the frontline. Shoulder To Shoulder.
Linda Djougang…What a HERO!!👏👏👏 Linda is used to a busy routine, when not normally fighting panedmics, Linda juggles being apart of the @IrishRugby team & a final year nursing student! We stay at home 🏘 for her! So thankful for all our #HealthcareHeroes #COVID19ireland pic.twitter.com/qvq9FsUwpI
— TAP (@AccessTCD) March 26, 2020