We got into this job to help people, and we have an opportunity to do that in a time of crisis… Society needs us.

This is a story about paramedic Joseph Tuson of Johannesburg, as told to Natasha Joseph

This is a story about paramedic Joseph Tuson of Johannesburg, as told to Natasha Joseph

On an icy Thursday morning, as a cold front blew into Johannesburg and anybody who could huddled deeper into their duvets, Joseph Tuson pulled into his driveway, climbed out of his car – and undressed in the driveway. Tuson, a paramedic just off a 15-hour shift, placed his uniform into a bucket of hot soapy water his mother had set out. He walked straight into the house, all of its exterior and interleading doors left open so he wouldn’t have to touch any handles, and climbed into a shower. For the rest of the day, as he does now whenever he’s off shift, Joseph kept to himself. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see his mother or sister; he’s just doing whatever he can to keep them safe from exposure to the coronavirus. It hasn’t been an easy adjustment

“I’ve had to train myself out of things like just walking through to the kitchen and making a cup of tea,” he explains much later that afternoon. “I’m scared for my family. My mom is immunocompromised; my gran lives nearby. If I get (COVID-19) chances are I’m going to be fine, but them…” He hasn’t slept yet; after four consecutive shifts – two day shifts followed by two night shifts – he’s trying to reset his sleep patterns for the next four days, when he will be off shift.

Being a paramedic is grueling, highly physical work. It’s also dangerous. There have been instances of ambulance personnel being attacked while responding to calls; EMS personnel won’t enter some areas without a police escort. And Joseph is used to the “daily dangers” of high crime spaces, where he and his colleagues must attend to victims of those crimes. None of this has vanished just because of COVID-19. As Joseph puts it: “Work goes on. Life goes on … people are in car crashes, they get sick for other reasons besides COVID.” 

But of course, the virus has brought some “significant changes”. At the start of each shift – which is meant to last for 12 hours, in Joseph’s case from 7pm to 7am, but can stretch depending on the length of each call – everyone on the team must be equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE). Before this, the paramedics wore gloves when treating patients; now they’ve added aprons, masks, and visors. Joseph, like anyone who wears glasses, is trying to adjust to life on the job with misted-up spectacles; what stresses him out far more than occasionally foggy vision is ensuring, as the senior staffer on his shift, that his colleagues have the necessary PPE to protect themselves from exposure to the virus. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously, and one that’s landed hard on his young shoulders. This time last year he was wrapping up his Bachelor of Health Sciences in Emergency Medical Care at the University of Johannesburg. Now, he’s shielding himself, his colleagues and his family from a pandemic that’s ripped through the world.

Not that Joseph is a stranger to emergency medical care: he did a short course after matric so he could work on ambulances, then enrolled at UJ. The degree requires students to dive in headfirst, working practical shifts to put their lessons into practice. He’s now spent seven years in emergency medical care. When I ask what keeps him going, he lights up. The fear, the anxiety, the daily risks and the new responsibilities – they all melt away and joy pours down the phone lines.

“I absolutely love my job. This whole COVID situation has made it more stressful, sure, but not less enjoyable. I get a real kick out of helping people, being useful … and it’s incredibly interesting, I see something new every day and have to go and read up on it, research it, learn about it. I feel like I’m getting to hang out with friends,” he pauses, then laughs, “And driving maybe a little faster than I should.”

What’s his message to other paramedics, fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic and other too often dreadful daily realities? 

“Well done for the work you’ve done. We got into this job to help people, and we have an opportunity to do that in a time of crisis. There is a privilege in that. Society needs us.”

Dear community care hero, I am in awe of how brave you are. Especially if you have children at home. To me the scariest thing about this epidemic is the possibility that I might leave my children behind without a mother. If you are facing this fear, but still putting yourself at risk for others, thank you for showing us what humanity can aspire to be. With thanks and love.