Happenings in the life of a young corona warrior narrated by Prof Pankaj Chaturvedi with a hope that they will get the dignity that they deserve. They are risking their lives while others are on zoom, webinars, instagram, Netflix, tik tok etc. These unsung heroes are doing their duty with little or no expectations.
The story revolves around the happening in Mumbai in May, 2020 during peak of the Covid Pandemic –
The Story –
I was woken up by itching all over my body. I looked at the watch and it was 4 am. The wall next to my bed was full of mosquitoes with their bellies swollen with my blood. I picked up a note book and killed dozens of them. I added few more red dots on the wall over the hundreds of previous ones. Victorious and contented, I went back to sleep. I was rudely disturbed again by continued itching on my hand. I was getting frustrated now. My mattress was infested with bed bugs and it was a routine for me to be bitten by them every night. I moved to the floor to sleep. It was a very hot and humid night in Mumbai and I was completely soaked in sweat with the fan giving little respite. The same routine had been playing out for last several months.
At 7 am, I got a call that I have to report for duty at a corona care center at Dharavi, Mumbai. I looked at my phone and checked for my whatsapp messages. Mumbai records highest number of corona virus cases in a day. The deaths due to corona virus are increasing. A young doctor died in an ICU due to covid 19. Three hundred policemen have tested positive. The health care staffs of a private hospital were infected with corona virus after treating a covid patient. A doctor was refused entry into a housing society because he worked in a covid hospital. A covid positive patient’s dead body remained unattended outside a hospital for 6 hours. Thousands of migrant worker living in shelter homes without food and water. Same old depressing news repeated over and over every day regarding shortage of beds, lack of oxygen, black marketing of essential drugs etc. Now, I had got used to such news and learned to remain optimistic against odds.
By 7.30 am, I was standing in a long queue to pick up the breakfast packet. The food packet was being handed over by a visibly unclean person with dirty hands. The food packets were kept on the dirty floor of the canteen. Looking at the person who distributed packets, I was hundred percent sure of the filthy conditions under which the food must have been made. I was sure that we were getting virus laden breakfast. Hungry and with no alternatives, we never resisted. We were a bit luckier than the stranded migrant workers. I quickly ate banana and gulped the juice in the food packet. However, I was afraid of eating the sandwich that didn’t appear fresh. As I walked outside the building, I offered my sandwich to a street dog that smelt it and refused to have even one bite of it. I could see dozens of sandwiches strewn around with no takers despite having at least 10 street dogs, 12 stray cats and hundreds of crows.
I live in a dilapidated hostel with common toilet, poor sanitation, little ventilation and dirty canteen. Four of us lived in an 8 feet by 8 feet room with 2 wooden cots and one rickety table! It won’t be an exaggeration to say that we live in an urban slum and we are the urban poor.
I am in an Intern working in a reputed Government hospital in Mumbai. I completed my MBBS with distinction from a reputed medical college 6 months back. I landed in Mumbai with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Once Interns and Postgraduates had gone to complain to our Dean about the pathetic conditions. We spoke for 5 mins and he spoke for 45 mins. He said he had faced bigger apathy when he was an intern. Basically, we were told to be more tolerant.
Mumbai is passing through one of the worst health crisis of modern times. A city of nearly 20 million population had never faced such a threat. All the beds in the private and Government hospitals are full of covid patients. The fear of disease is of higher magnitude than the actual disease. Television and social media converted this medical problem into mental health problem. With many senior doctors choosing to be at home, interns and post graduates were pressed into medical service. Till recently, we were ignored as most inexperienced and too dangerous to be given serious responsibility. As interns, we were used as clerks or ward boys to chaperon around with the patients, collect lab reports, draw blood, push stretchers, make tea for the senior faculty, deposit utility bills for the bosses, serve as city guide for friends of Professor etc. Now, we were branded as “corona warriors”! We are warriors with little safeguard or ammunitions at our disposal. Suddenly and conveniently, our seniors discovered that were mature and dependable. I started regretting my decision of joining medicine ever since the covid out break started. You have to study all your life and get little in return for the hard work that you put in. While everyone was on Netflix, instagram tik tok etc, we were risking our lives on the streets without food and water. The interns and postgraduates, the least experienced doctors, formed the backbone of corona care in Mumbai. One of my fellow intern who turned covid positive was admitted on a general ward bed next to the very patient who gave him the infection. He has no choice. The patient has now got discharged but my friend is still in the same filthy ward for last 2 weeks. There are days when he woke up in the morning to find patients on the neighbouring beds dead and unattended for hours.
On the day people were beating Thali (plate) to appreciate the warriors, my friends were beaten up in a slum for asking people for covid testing. On the day people switched off light and lit candles, I had to walk 8 kilometres to reach my hostel.
As I boarded the shuttle bus I got a call from my mother enquiring about my well being. She was very concerned. We had a big bungalow in Jalgaon with 2 cars, 4 servants, 2 gardeners and 2 dogs. We spent more on our dogs than the stipend I got. While I was lucky to get around 10000 per month, my friends in private medical college don’t get anything. Even the house keeping staff of our hospital earned 15000 per month! I had never told my miseries to my parents so that they do not get depressed. Next I got a call from a high school classmate who had joined law school. He was complaining that he had posted 6 new tik tok videos on facebook and I did not “like” them. His wife who was a management trainee had finished learning guitar and violin during lock down. She was very upset that she had sent her recordings to me on whatsapp but I did not even respond to her messages. That moment I got an idea of an e-slap! I wish I had a soft ware that could electronically slap both of them to express my heart’s desire.
As I approached Dharavi health clinic, I wore my N95 mask and face shield that I have been using for the last 10 days. We were promised replacement several times but it hasn’t been fulfilled. I passed through narrow lanes of Asia’s largest slum full of people and filth all around. Heavy stench of some dead animal or decaying garbage filled the air. The houses were unbelievably small and most of them had large numbers of inmates. There were small kids, oblivious of the pandemic, playing in the dirty neighborhood. Externally, People didn’t seem to be concerned or hassled. This reaffirmed my belief in thousands of Gods and Goddesses in India.
At Dharavi, I was assigned to go house to house and look for symptomatic people and encourage them for testing for the virus. We are supposed to make slum dwellers aware of social distancing, personal hygiene, good nutrition etc. I wish some one could ensure those privileges to interns too. Four people lived in a small hostel room! Geyser in our hostel has been out of order for several months. Our toilets are dirty. Food quality is appalling. I have been wearing same pair of jeans for last 10 days. I have been surviving on tooth paste and soap of my room mates because I hadn’t been able to go to the shop. My bedsheet was not changed for last 2 weeks. I don’t remember when was our floor cleaned.
It was 40 degree centigrade and 80 percent humidity as I walked down the narrow lanes in full body protective suit made of poly ethylene. After an hour, I was sweating profusely and extremely dehydrated. I did not have an option but to carry one with the work for the next 3 hours. Now, I was feeling suffocated too. Had I not loosened my mask and removed my face shield, I would have fainted any moment. I walked to the nearby house and sat in the verandah gasping for fresh air. I felt like tearing apart my PPE. It was increasingly becoming unbearable.
I could now hear someone moaning in the house behind me. I noticed there was a frail young lady who was lying on the floor of her tiny room and looked very sick. I wore my PPE again and went to examine her. She was shivering, having high fever and was very breathless. I was startled to see a small child crawl out from below the adjoining cot. He must be around 4 years old and was only wearing a tea shirt without pants. He looked very frightened. The mother has been sick for last 3 days. The mother and child did not have anything to eat since last 2 days. She was definitely a case of covid 19 and she needed to be shifted to a hospital. I started to think about the ways to shift this lady to the hospital. In the narrow lanes of Dharavi, movement of stretcher or wheel chair was impossible. It was equally impossible to convince her neighbors to carry her with my help. The boy started crying and held my legs. I could see the helplessness in the eyes of the mother even though she was semi conscious and could barely speak. She gripped my hands and held it close to her son’s hands. She seemed more worried about her son than herself.
I decided to carry her on my shoulder and take her to the nearest ambulance. With lady slumping on my right shoulder and holding her son with my left hand, I walked for nearly 30 meters. Though, no one came forward to help me but I had hundreds of curious spectators around. I placed her on the ambulance stretcher and put her on oxygen through the mask. I sat in the ambulance with her son still gripping me very tightly and her mother holding his tiny legs throughout. I guess the child was trembling with fear. She was breathing heavily and her oxygen saturation was only 80 even on oxygen supplementation. If she did not get medical attention, she would die in less than 30 minutes. I called up my friend to arrange a bed for her in the ICU. As we reached the hospital, we rushed her to the ward and put her on high flow oxygen. The biggest challenge was that the child was refusing to leave me. At this point, one of the nurses offered biscuit to him. The child, who had not eaten for 2 days, couldn’t resist the temptation. Her mother’s oxygen saturation was dangerously plummeting and she was slipping into coma. She was turning blue from pink. She had little chance to survive. The child was busy eating biscuits with her mother still holding his arm tightly.
I got a call on my mobile phone that I had to rush back to Dharavi. Concerned and confused, I went back to attend another call. There was a small factory where dozens of workers were found positive, there was a family that refused corona virus testing, there was a heart patient who wanted supply of his medicine and there was group of migrant laborers who were stranded without meals. There was grief all around. I did not get time to drink water or have food because I could not remove my PPE. I was myself feeling sick and exhausted. Had I not left Dharavi by 5 pm, I would have collapsed.
I slumped on my bed when I reached the hostel. I did not have the energy to even drink water or eat anything.Was it the sign of infection with the virus? I was dreading the thought of being covid positive and ending up in the general ward. It was constant fear that we have to live with.
Suddenly, I remembered the lady that I had admitted in the ward in the morning. Nervously, I called up the ward to enquire about her. I realized that I did not remember her name but fortunately I remembered her bed number. My heart sank and throat choked after hearing the sad news. She had died by the afternoon. I felt like crying loudly but clenched my fist to control my emotions. As I closed my eyes and started to breathe deeply, I could only remember that moment when she held my hand close to her son’s. I had to live up to her last wish. I didn’t know what to do with that little innocent kid. I decided to go and check for the well being of the boy and find some shelter for him. On the way, I spoke to the nurse in the pediatrics ward who agreed to keep the child for sometime till some permanent solution can be found. I had never felt so sad and depressed in my life. I reached the ward and wore the PPE again to go close to the patients. As I came out of the duty room, I saw the kid standing outside the door. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sight of that orphan. I did not know how to react. I stood there frozen. He bent forward and held my hand pulling me inside the ward. I had no courage to see the dead body of his mother. I tried my best to resist him. However, I was powerless and speechless at that moment.
What I witnessed next was one of the most memorable events of my life. The mother had recovered remarkably and she was sitting on the bed with oxygen mask still fixed on her face. It seems she was shifted from the bed number 20 after I had left the ward. The half naked child crawled in his mother’s lap and sat there smilingly! Thanks to my mask and the shield, no one in the ward realized that I was crying.
The queu for the dinner packet was very long. I didn’t have any strength to wait and I was sleepy too.
That night I slept happily and peacefully despite heat, humidity, hunger, bugs and mosquitoes. I was confident that I had chosen the right profession.
This story is a tribute to the young interns and post graduates who are working in the frontline in our war against corona virus. We need to help them. Tomorrow, he or she can be your own child.