Coronavirus: Lebanon’s medical students are volunteering to treat infected patients

A team of 14 in Beirut is working 12-hour shifts without pay to mitigate the country’s outbreak

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From the moment Lebanon announced its first confirmed case of Covid-19 coronavirus on February 21, Houssein Toufayli knew he had to do something to help.

Mr Toufayli, 28, is part of a team of 14 students from the Lebanese University who have volunteered to look after coronavirus patients at Beirut's Rafik Hariri University Hospital, working 12-hour shifts alongside fully trained staff, without pay.

Each staff member tends to dozens of people per day, either treating patients in isolation or handling concerned citizens who turn up at the emergency room for  testing.

"You hardly have a chance to sit down – you are constantly visiting patients and taking precautions," Mr Toufayli told The National. "I have lost about four kilos in less than a month."

The student doctor, from the southern city of Nabatieh, lives in Beirut with his wife, so can stay at home and commute daily to the hospital. Those who live outside the capital are given the option of staying in dormitory-style accommodation.

As of yesterday, there were 133 confirmed coronavirus patients and four deaths in Lebanon, official figures showed. Of those infected, three have recovered.

Rafik Hariri University Hospital is Lebanon’s largest public hospital and the country’s centre for testing, isolating and treating coronavirus patients. When the first case of the disease was announced, its staff sprung into action.

Overnight, the building was split in two. In addition to the regular hospital, which is operating as normal, a coronavirus emergency wing was created, complete with separate entrances, lifts, its own medical team and isolation rooms.

The isolation floor of the coronavirus wing has about 140 beds, including four rooms for critical patients who cannot breathe without the aid of respiratory machines.

Layal Olawyan, 28, another LU student, also felt compelled to offer whatever help she could.

“After all, that’s what being a doctor is all about, caring for people when they are in need,” she said. “If we don’t help our country now, why did we do medicine in the first place?”

The hospital staff began preparing for the potential arrival of the disease in January, when the extent of the outbreak in China’s Hubei province first became clear.

“We did several rounds of preparation – how to put on suits, how to administer tests and how to communicate effectively with patients,” said Mr Toufayli, who was on rotation for medical training at Rafik Hariri University Hospital.


During their shifts, the students, most of whom are in their final year of training for a medical specialism, wear full protective gear which is disposed of after visiting each patient.

“We wear the suits the entire time and it’s unbearably hot,” Ms Olaywan said. “And the mask doesn’t allow a lot of air to enter. Breathing is difficult.”

Beyond the exhaustion of back-to-back shifts and the discomfort of the protective clothing, the students are at a high risk of contracting the virus themselves.

“I’m not worried at all, because in our daily job we are already prone to getting infections and used to dealing with contagious situations,” Ms Olaywan said.

But that does not ease the minds of their relatives and friends.

“My family was afraid at first, but they support me and are proud,” said Mr Toufayli, whose mother sends him near-constant messages, urging him to wash his hands and rest.

He visits his relatives in Nabatieh each week, but avoids direct contact with them, keeping a distance of at least two metres and not entering the family home.

In the foyer of the coronavirus emergency unit, five or six people wore masks while waiting for temperature tests.

Many people who present themselves at the hospital are turned away because they do not meet the criteria for testing: having recently visited a country with a large outbreak; suffering from flu-like symptoms; or being in contact with someone who has contracted the virus.

“Most of the people who come to us are simply afraid,” Mr Toufayli said. “There is a lot of fake news on social media about the virus.”

By coming to the hospital and interacting with potential patients, he said, these individuals are exposing themselves to a far higher risk of infection than if they had simply stayed at home.

By the concrete archways at the entrance of the hospital’s coronavirus wing are two soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders. Their job is to hand out surgical masks and dollops of sanitising gel to every new arrival.

Like the medical workers, they come into contact with dozens of potential cases every day. But they are quick to dismiss the danger.

"Why should we be scared? We've faced bullets and bombs," one said. "If we're going to die, we're going to die. Only God can decide."

The 14 students working at the hospital are not the only ones from the Lebanese University to have volunteered to help respond to cases of coronavirus in the country.

More than 300 more have received training on testing, awareness raising and how to teach people to take necessary hygiene precautions.

“I don’t think the Health Ministry was expecting so many of us to volunteer,” said Tayssir Zaatari, who is in his final year of general medical studies.

Mr Zaatari, 25, and his fellow volunteers are sent to land borders and the airport to help with the medical checks now undergone by every person who enters the country.

Like those offering their time and expertise at the hospital, he felt he had no choice but to step in.

“This is my work and my humanity,” he said.

Local medical professionals said that if coronavirus continues to spread, as was predicted by Health Minister Hamad Hasan on March 6, the struggling sector may no longer be able to cope.

For months, doctors have warned of the danger of dwindling medical supplies caused by a nationwide economic crisis and a dollar shortage that has threatened foreign imports.

Last week, a representative of medical equipment importers told Reuters that stocks of masks and gloves in the country are totally depleted.

“At Rafik Hariri Hospital we don’t have any problems – there are enough supplies,” Mr Toufayli said. “For now.”