When medical professionals – physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists in this case – work at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic every day, they should not have to worry about getting paid at the end of the month for the work they have done. This belief, more than anything else, drove Amy Harrison, a director of MH&P, to seek relief funding from The Sukuma Fund. Harrison and the rest of the MH&P Directors are passionately protective of the company’s ethos of looking after and nurturing people.
“The impact of Covid-19 was never going to be just a financial experience for us,” she says. “Its real threat was to our culture and our family-mindedness, which is rooted in our origins as a business my sister and I – both physiotherapists – started.”
By the time Covid closed down the South African economy, MH&P was delivering 1 400 treatment sessions per week across its seven different locations in Soweto, the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and Umhlanga. It had 69 people in its payroll.
Apart from being an obviously successful business, MH&P is also a pioneer in its field. Its team of neurorehabilitation therapists work with patients to counter the effects of spinal cord injuries, strokes, head injuries and other neurological diseases. The fact that her mother was diagnosed with MS when Harrison was six, prepared the two founding sisters for their future careers. “We grew up comfortable with disability, which I believe planted the seeds for us to be in this field,” says Harrison.
Having set up a practice in the back of a garage in 2002, the sisters partnered with speech and occupational therapy practices over the years. In 2014, the partner practices merged into one company and a new team of directors established it as a multidisciplinary group practice with an expanding national impact.
When Covid-19 hit, MH&P lost more than half of its billings overnight. The timing could hardly have been worse: in the last quarter of 2019 MH&P upped its staff by about 10% to expand its services. “We had all these new people and projects and we didn’t know how we would cope,” says Harrison.
She vividly recalls the day MH&P was asked to put a Covid-rehab team together for patients who had recovered from the virus but needed rehab to swallow, breathe and regain their overall strength.
“It was an ethical dilemma. How do you send your staff to the front lines without knowing if you can pay their salaries and provide them with the PPE to keep them safe? The conflict in balancing the need to keep our business going with meeting our obligations to our staff and our country was immense. It was a moment where we truly had to trust in the core of who we are as a business.”
Knowing that the business needed help, Harrison started searching online early one Saturday morning, after an almost-sleepless night. “I think it actually was the day after the Sukuma Fund was launched,” she remembers. “I saw the Fund and decided to apply, without even consulting the other directors. Compliance and governance had always been important to us, so we had all we needed to apply. It was a relief that I could pin a little bit of hope on someone out there.” While the funds did not come through within seven days, the verification process made sense to Harrison, given the amount MH&P was applying for. “The efficiency of the process was astounding, as was the communication: every email I sent was replied to.”
MH&P received the maximum soft loan amount in addition to a small grant. Although the application was mostly predicated on rental relief, a portion of the funds is being used for salaries as well. “Our goal was to keep the company going, both in terms of the spaces from where we deliver our services and our people,” Harrison says. Having come through the worst, MH&P has not had to force the lay-off a single staff member; in addition to the relief funding, staff have voluntarily reduced their hours to save each other’s jobs.
The new normal at MH&P is that all therapists wear full PPE when interacting with patients, and work on the assumption that every patient is Covid-positive. “All our staff experience Covid personally every day,” says Harrison. “They leave their shoes outside when they get home and have to shower before going near their partners and children. It places an immense strain on them; fatigue and anxiety are constant companions. But the MH&P team are remarkable human beings, and we are blessed that we can keep on serving patients who, by and large, appreciate life in a unique way.”