By Dr. Keerthana Rajkumar, MD, M.Sc (Cardiology)
It was 2 pm on a hot and humid afternoon in Vellore. I was slightly late for my shift. Hustling through the hospital corridors, suddenly I felt uneasy. In my head I was going over the sequence in which I had to ‘don’ my PPE. My mother’s voice in my head, ‘be extra careful’.
What kind of patients would I have to manage? Will I do and say the right things? Can I be of any emotional support? Can I pray with the patients? What if there is an emergency and someone deteriorates?
Becoming a doctor was a dream I shared with my late grandfather. From the very beginning I knew I had chosen the right profession. I fit into the role with ease. I was usually confident in my approach to patients. Then what was this feeling of uncertainty today? Was I frightened of COVID-19? Or was it just an apprehension that I’d be on the frontline of the fight against this life-threatening disease that had literally stopped the world.
I quickly video-called my parents. I put on my brave face and smiled. Before my observant mother caught on to my nervousness I said I was late and goodbye and that I’d call after my shift.
An eerie silence welcomed me to the ward. I could see nurses hustling about in their PPE and wondered if they had taken a break. I walked towards the doctor I had to takeover from. She ran me through my duties for the shift and give me a brief update on each patient and told me to keep a watch specifically on everyone’s oxygen saturation levels. I readied myself for war.
WARRIOR TO VICTIM
Fast forward to a few weeks later. I was getting ready to finish my stint at this hospital, I was looking forward to going back home, being in the company of loved ones and preparing for a wedding in the family.
Initially it was just a running nose. The next day I developed a slight fever. I knew I had to get tested.
A few hours and a positive test result later, hospital admission by midnight, I settled in to my room when realisation hit me. I was now a victim to this ‘pink puchi’ (pink insect) as my grandmother calls it!
The next 7 days in the hospital were not as bad as I expected them to be.
Physically I was doing well. The days in hospital gave me time to pause. To reflect. To look at the bigger picture. It’s hard to grasp the enormity of what you’re going through. In the end, I was inspired by something a loved one said, I think the advice to me would be, “Be brave, it’s all in your mind. Make sure you become better from this and find a way to use your situation for good.”
OUT OF THE WOODS — OR AM I REALLY?
On day 8, I was discharged from the hospital. I was told the worst is now over. I went to the comfort of my home, a sense of breaking free, knowing fully well that I had yet another 14 days in complete isolation. But at least I was home, in my own bed.
I was tired and fatigued. I tried to do simple household chores everyday. But even taking a shower was sometimes exhausting and ever so often, I had to stop in between a long conversation to catch my breath.
I enjoy food, I like everything about it. I love to cook, I like the smells and I like to try everything. We cousins joke that our family lives to eat! And oh, how I love the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the mornings! I woke up one day, and realised that I couldn’t smell my coffee! I quickly ate something and realised I’d lost my sense of taste too. I also had completely lost my appetite.
The muscle aches are a completely different story. Just turning from side to side left me in excruciating pain that woke me up from sleep every single night. I used the small gaps in between to think about those in ICUs and lonely isolation wards. Fear of death and loneliness looms over these people and wards.
The physical toll is high but no one warns you about the mental and emotional roller coaster that you are about to embark on! Its not just a physical trial, it is an extremely volatile mental one. The fact that I have to come to terms with this tiny virus that is killing people all over the world and now it has made a home in my body. Through all these days, loneliness was the hardest part for me. Wanting to be brave, yet fear often engulfed me. I looked forward to calls and took comfort in my friends and family.
I was blessed with a strong support system of Appa and Mum, my family, cousins and my best friend of 25 years, Esha. They called me umpteen times a day just to make random conversation and make me smile.
Dear Usha aunty, my neighbour who I’d never met offering to feed me while I rested, I knew I was one of the lucky few.
I also drew my strength from prayer, “Just help me, help others through this.”
I’m still unsure if this disease will have a last thing impact on my health. The terrifying uncertainty creates a psychological strain because I just don’t know what is coming next. The symptoms change every day.
Even after the symptoms deteriorate, I realise that my body needs to regain its lost stamina after its long fight with the disease. I cannot tell you how amazing it feels each day to do one normal thing.
I realise that patience and a calm mind is the key. I must learn to listen to my body. I have to fight this disease, there is no cure yet.
A CHANGED PERSPECTIVE
I now see everything in new light. I realise that I’m alive when I could have lost my life like the millions of healthcare workers who fought on the frontline. The fight against this ‘puchi’ is far from over!
Yet I have been blessed with infinite opportunities to experience small moments of joy even in these worst times.
Walking in the sunshine.
The voice of a loved one after a long awaited phone call.
The absolute comfort of finally seeing your parents but the pain of not being able to hug them.
A simple home cooked meal and actually being able to finally taste it again.
The realisation that I am loved.
That there are good people in world that I have so much to learn from.
I now look forward to donating my plasma to help save the critically ill COVID-19 patients.
I’ve gained a new understanding of the anxiety and isolation that patients can face. I now am more aware of the impact my words can have on easing a patients concern and my words now will always be infused with the sense of gratitude for my survival.
My personal experience as a patient will fundamentally change the way I practice Medicine.
God has more in store for me and I have more to do in this life.
I am now a wounded healer.