Every day, Heba Rashed is inundated with as many as 200 calls and messages on her mobile phone, starting the moment she wakes up, from Egyptians pleading for help finding a hospital bed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“If I don’t answer my phone, people may die. In a crisis like this, we can’t retreat,” the 40-year-old said after a typically exhausting work day that ended at midnight.
Rashed is the founder and head of Mersal, a five-year-old health care charity whose name has done the rounds on social media in recent weeks for saving the lives of hundreds of coronavirus patients.
Since May, she has been leading a nine-strong “emergency” team that has stepped forward to help in the gruelling battle against the highly contagious disease, as the rising caseload strains medical services in the country of over 100 million people.
The charity has taken on the daunting task of securing hospital beds and expensive intensive care unit (ICU) spots for coronavirus cases or those suffering from severe pneumonia caused by COVID-19.
As the epidemic accelerates and the disease progresses, these beds are in rising demand, especially because of the breathing problems the illness can bring.
Mersal’s coronavirus team has direct round-the-clock access to an operation room designated by health authorities for the coronavirus crisis that has a helpline, and is working together with ten private hospitals in Greater Cairo.
“We first reach out to the 105 [room]; if they find us an available bed in a state hospital, we direct the patient to it. If there is pressure, we send them to a private hospital until they secure a place in a government hospital, or until they recover and are discharged,” Rashed told Ahram Online.
Every day, the organisation receives some 2,000-3,000 calls and social media messages. Of those, some 50 people are added daily to a waitlist for critical care beds -- now totalling around 300.
The high numbers mean the team must perform triage to decide who deserves a place first, with priority usually given to those in serious condition, Rashed says.
While concerns are rising about how the country’s already faltering and under-resourced health care system will handle the surge of an average of 1,400 new infections daily in recent weeks, authorities have repeatedly assured the public that the hospital system is not running out of beds.
Last week, Egypt’s health minister said that the occupancy rate at quarantine hospitals was at 59 percent and intensive care beds were at 71 percent nationwide.
Out of the 35,000 beds in the 376 Egyptian hospitals currently dealing with coronavirus patients, only 6,500 were occupied, minister Hala Zayed said last month. She stressed that beds were still available in Cairo despite its high rate of infections and that complaints about lack of beds had dropped recently.
“Until a couple of weeks ago, a lot of people were calling us saying they cannot find a place. We had a very long waiting list,” said Ayman Soliman, an internist and critical care doctor at the Abbasiya fever hospital, the country’s first and major frontline facility in the battle against the virus.
But he says things have changed significantly after the country designated over 300 general hospitals to receive coronavirus cases. “There is a big difference now; the numbers [of those needing beds] are not as high, even with the steady rise in infections, and the waiting time is a lot shorter.”
Hospital beds are prepared to receive COVID-19 patients at Ain Shams University Field Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The hospital has a capacity of 179 beds including 11 Intensive Care Units, Dr. Ashraf Omar, dean of the medical school said Wednesday in televised comments. (Photo: AP)
Over the past month, Mersal has offered more than 400 patients intensive care beds, mostly in private hospitals, while covering all or part of the cost.
Marwa Refaat’s 66-year-old father was one such patient. He had spent nine days in isolation at home before he started having trouble breathing and his oxygen level deteriorated. He was being given oxygen at home as the family scrambled to hunt for a bed.
They reached out to four state hospitals and special government helplines, but to no avail, with one hospital turning them down.
Refaat posted a dire plea on social media at night, and the following afternoon, she was contacted by the Mersal team, who told her they had found her father a bed at a private hospital.
Her father spent 11 days at hospital, five in the ICU. Mersal fully covered the cost without querying if the family could have afforded it or not.
“I would have lost him if it wasn’t for them,” Refaat said.
Intensive care beds at private hospitals are expensive, costing between EGP10,000-50,000 (approx. $620-3,100) a day, Rashed and others say.
“There is an exaggeration in prices. But we have no other option. The alternative is that people will die,” Rashed said, adding that some facilities had offered them a discount of up to 30 percent.
Mersal has also helped around three dozen COVID-19 sufferers find beds at state hospitals strained by the rising influx of patients. It now has its own 20-bed ICU unit that came into operation in late May.
The charity, which is entirely reliant on social media to draw donors, now runs a telemedicine Facebook group for suspected coronavirus cases and self-isolating patients which has drawn 350,000 followers and which helps hundreds of people every day.
It has also given a number of life-saving ventilators and supplies of protective gear to several hospitals nationwide.
But the team, who are working round-the-clock rotating shifts to make sure they are reachable 24/7, are grappling with another challenge.
The unrelenting mental pressure of battling the pandemic on the frontline has exacted a toll on many of them, who have seen patients succumb to a disease that has killed more than 3,000 in the country.
“Sometimes I feel like I cannot handle that amount of calls, deaths, and cries. I just break down. It’s a terrible mental pressure,” Rashed says.
When this happens, she opts to stay away from her phone for a bit and have more proper sleep, while having one of her colleagues take her place.
“But the following day I’m back to the circuit. We can’t take a break at such a time.”
There are, however, many victories that keep the staff going. For Rashed, one such moment was when a 10-year-old patient, already suffering from an autoimmune disease and in dire condition, was admitted to hospital.
“Not all hospitals accept such cases. We were a bundle of nerves until we found him a bed. It was a happy day.”
Members of Mersal team delivering medical supplies in the southern city of Sohag, Egypt, June 21, 2020 (Photo: Mersal Foundation's official Facebook page)