Performing the clinic’s first COVID-19 test

This is a story about Meggen Gajadhar from Dududu, Scottburgh as told to Natasha Joseph

A few years ago, Meggen Gajadhar’s father found a single coffee tree on the family farm in Dududu on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast. It was all that remained of trees planted by Meggen’s great-grandmother. So Meggen, a nursing sister at the Scottburgh Municipal Clinic, harvested a single seed; she planted it – and waited. Today, there are 100 coffee trees on the farm: each time one yields fruit, she uses its seeds to plant more.

A single seed and a great deal of persistence: that tells you a lot about how Meggen sees both her work as a nurse and as a farmer (the family farm also yields chia and avocado; there are pigs, too). It’s nearly 6pm when we get the chance to chat; Meggen sounds tired after a hectic day at the clinic, where much of her time was devoted to a “very ill” 16-year-old girl. The teenager did not have COVID-19; Meggen and her colleagues obviously can’t stop treating other ailments just because a new, frightening virus has swept across the world and infiltrated even corners of rural KwaZulu-Natal.

After more than 20 years in nursing and five years at the Scottburgh clinic, Meggen doesn’t pretend to be invincible, admitting that she and her colleagues were “very terrified” when COVID-19 first emerged. Part of that fear emanated from just how little we knew – and still know – about the virus. There was also the worry of administering the swab used to test for COVID-19. Patients flinch at the sight of the long swab (Meggen assures her patients, and me, that while it looks intimidating the swab is merely “uncomfortable”), and the nurses’ kind faces are hidden behind the visor they wear for the procedure. And nurses are, after all, only human: Meggen and the other nursing sisters were afraid of contracting the virus themselves and weren’t sure how best to perform the test. Nobody wanted to be responsible for that first swab. Meggen, a devout Catholic, confided in her priest about her anxieties. “He told me, ‘God protects His own,’” she explains.

So she donned her visor, and a protective suit, and performed the clinic’s first COVID-19 test herself. 

Though tests and screening are now a daily occurrence, Meggen knows she can’t let down her guard. Each evening when she returns to the farm, which she shares with her elderly parents, husband and two children, she immediately removes her uniform and showers. She is sleeping alone, and has her own bathroom, in a bid to protect the family from any exposure to the virus. Yes, she worries about her parents. But this is her work: “You just carry on.”

As with most masked heroes, Meggen doesn’t see herself as anything special. But, as the signal fades in and out and she describes what evening on the farm looks like, she admits something extraordinary. Her clinic shift may be over – but her nursing work is not. For many people living in and near Dududu, Scottburgh is a 30-minute walk one-way. Public transport is erratic; private cars are rare in an area beset by poverty. And so, on many evenings, when Meggen gets home she finds people waiting at the gate, wanting painkillers or an examination or maybe just a few soothing words from the woman whose vocation they know is to heal. By that time she is exhausted, grappling with her own worries, and keen to get out among the coffee trees or to go and check on the pigs. Maybe some of us would insist that working hours are over; suggest that people come back another day or find a way to reach the clinic. Not Sister Meggen Gajadhar. She puts her fears, her need to be alone on the farm that brings her so much peace and joy, aside. Nobody gets turned away. After all, this is her work. And so, she just carries on.

Dear Community Healthcare Workers
I hear my neighbours cheer every night for essential service workers. Even when you can’t hear us, please know we’re cheering for you.
Thank you for waking up every day and deciding to be brave. You’re my hero.