COVID-19 “She said goodbye to me in her way”
George Kepkey drove his wife Anncha to work and back at Cape Town’s Tygerberg Hospital every day, up to six days a week. Some days he would take her lunch.
Anncha never got her driver’s license and relied on her husband of 31 years for transport.
This Friday morning on May 27, while driving this familiar route from their Parow home to the hospital, George pulled over his vehicle and wept over the steering wheel.
On the radio Kenny Rogers’ ‘Through the years’ was humming. It was their special song.
While Anncha built a career as a nurse, working twelve-hour shifts at Tygerberg’s trauma unit, George (56) stayed at home to raise their two sons Chadley (29) and Angeo (23).
Third staff member at Tygerberg to die of COVID-19
Last week, on Wednesday 20 May, George woke up at 4:15 am. He was alone in bed, but had felt a nudge. The way Anncha used to nudge him as she walked past, smiling. Bleary-eyed, he reached to her side of the bed on the right saying: “Moenie worry nie my maatjie. Vandag kom jy van daai ventilator af.” (“Don’t worry my friend, today you’ll be taken off that ventilator”).
However, a few hours later, a nurse from Melomed Hospital in Bellville called to say that Anncha had passed away – at 4:15 am. Anncha had succumbed to respiratory complications related to COVID-19, which she had contracted at the Tygerberg trauma unit while caring for patients. She was 52 years old.
Anncha is the third staff member at Tygerberg Hospital who died after contracting the virus.
Earlier Ntombizakithi Ngidi (49), a nurse from Delft and household aid Muriel Landu (59) from Khayelitsha succumbed to COVID-19 related complications.
According to figures released by the Western Cape Health Department last week, the province recorded 1 010 confirmed COVID-19 cases among doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers in the public sector. The province recorded six deaths and 462 recoveries.
Anncha was laid to rest at Durbanville Memorial Park on Wednesday. Chadley and Angeo, who both work in IT, combined their salaries to pay for their mother’s funeral.
“Love of my life”
This Friday, George concluded paperwork around his wife’s passing at Tygerberg Hospital. This was when he cried, while driving back home afterward. Later that morning George spoke to Spotlight over Zoom.
In an emotional interview, George paid tribute to Anncha who he says is the love of his life. She was a prankster and a joker who pursued her passion to care for the gravely sick and injured until the very end.
“On 26 April, a Sunday, I took Anncha to work at the hospital,” he recalls. “The next day was a public holiday, and she was at home. And she said to us that she is feeling a little uneasy, as she had come into contact with a lot of patients with coronavirus the previous day. I asked her whether she took all the precautions, and she said, ‘yes, yes. I feel a little uneasy, that’s all, but don’t worry about it’,” George recalls the conversation.
“She went on working and so on, and then the next Monday, on May 4, when she got home from the hospital, she was all red in the face behind her mask. At one point she fainted in the passage. And I said to her, ‘Now what’s going on?’ She said to me, ‘I’ve been tested. I have to wait for my results, we need to keep our distance.’ She was still joking around then, but I was getting worried,” George says.
“On May 6, we had just had supper, when my wife came to me looking frightened. She said ‘please, you need to take me to the hospital now, I’m feeling really short of breath’. I took her to the hospital at 8 pm. The security was very tight so we couldn’t even go inside with her,” says George. “Past midnight at home, I had fallen asleep in front of the TV, fully clothed, when she messaged me to say that they’re keeping her there at the hospital. She said she had tested positive and that Angeo and I need to get tested as soon as possible, too. Even then her main concern was for us. So, we did. We went to stand in line. We tested negative,” George says.
“I’ll call you later”
“On Mother’s Day, May 10, Chadley called my wife. He was very upset, saying he could barely hear what she was saying over the phone, as she was so out of breath. One of the last things she said to me was ‘Ek gaan nog lank lewe ou pel!’ (‘I’m still going to live long, old mate!’).”
George says by the Monday, prayer groups from around South Africa were praying for her. “Our Muslim friends from around the country, other religions too. During all of this, I couldn’t sleep. I just didn’t sleep. I would get up and walk around the house, pacing in the dark. All in all, I lost twelve kilos in this time. Then the doctors said to me, ‘your wife, she’s going to be tubed now. You need to tell her whatever you need to tell her. “We’re taking away her phone now’,” George recalls.
“My last words to her was I love you. please don’t tire yourself out. I could barely hear what she was saying, but I think she was trying to give me instructions. Something like ‘Ek bel jou later’ (I’ll call you later).”
Initially the ventilator appeared to help Anncha’s breathing. On Tuesday, 19 May, health care workers at Melomed Hospital pronounced her stable, fuelling the Kepkey family’s hope. “On the Tuesday, the doctors said she is stable, that the oxygen had increased in her lungs and that she is better,” George says. “Then at about 4:15, Wednesday morning. I was lying in bed and woke up, feeling a little shove. In the same way that Anncha would shove me when she walked past me in the house. She would stick out her tongue at me, nudging me and laughing. I had felt that in bed and was wide awake.”
George covers his face with his hands before he continues.
“Later that morning, a wonderful lady – Joy Herman – an elderly nurse, the same calibre nurse as my wife. Well, she called me, and she said, ‘Mr Kepkey, I am so sorry. Your wife is no longer with us’. My wife died at 4:15 am. So, I know, she said goodbye to me, in her way.”
“That trauma unit was her world”
Anncha was born in George on the Garden Route where she attended George High School. Her mother worked in a leather factory, her father was a warehouse supervisor. In 1987, she moved to Cape Town to study nursing at the Sarleh Dollie Nursing College at Tygerberg Hospital.
“At Tygerberg she stayed on the premises,” says George. “And this is where we fell in love. Oh, she had such high spirits. From there we continued with our relationship and in her third year, we got married.”
Anncha started her career as a professional nurse at Tygerberg’s trauma unit in 1990, where she would continue to rise in the ranks. This April, she was promoted to assistant manager for trauma emergency services.
“For some reason, my wife decided to stay in trauma,” says George. “She just loved working with those really sick and injured people. I mean, you can imagine, it’s the worst in a way. All the injuries, the knife wounds, the bullet wounds. Everything comes in there, you see everything. And she had a passion for that. That trauma unit was her world. We came second as a family. My duty was to bring up the children, because she concentrated so much on her work. Her shifts were up to twelve hours long.”
“At home, we learned to accept that her job is her number one passion. Many Sundays, I would cook lunch at home for me and the boys, and take her food to the hospital for her. Grilled chicken, veggies, baked potatoes, things like that. The hospital isn’t far from our house. You can see it from our backyard.”
The Kepkey family always loved road trips, particularly to the seaside. Whenever they had spare cash, they would hit the highway on camping trips. It was Anncha’s dream to retire in Struisbaai where she hoped to buy a small fixer-upper house to renovate with her husband over time.
George says he may still make the move to Struisbaai, in her honour. Meanwhile he will remember his wife’s pranks and laughter while listening to her favourite singers, Kenny Rogers and Frank Sinatra.
“She was a beautiful woman,” says George, tearing up again. “Short and a little bit round. I called her my round little darling. We loved each other endlessly, my whole life revolved around her.”
Following prescribed guidelines
Commenting on the tragic turn of events at Tygerberg Hospital, spokesperson Laticia Pienaar told Spotlight the hospital is following the health department’s health and safety guidelines on managing COVID-19 among staff.
“We have followed the prescribed guidelines of individual risk assessment,” she says. “The guidelines also make provision for the appropriate allocation of PPEs (personal protective equipment) according to the work area. For example, when working in ICU (intensive care unit), you will wear the PPEs appropriate to ICU. If you are a household aid, you wear the PPEs appropriate to household aids.”
*We thank George Kepkey for his openness and his willingness to tell us about Anncha Kepkey and their lives together.