Employees State Insurance Hospital
This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
Spring had just set in, and mango blooms and singing nightingales had taken over the city. I had recently returned from an enriching medical conference in Hyderabad, had partied with my friends on Woman’s Day and was gearing up for the annual exams of my daughter due to start in a week. Life was indeed what could be defined as normal.
Of course, COVID was in the air, in Wuhan that is. I was bracing for its arrival in our country. I had attended CMEs (continued medical education program) on Corona with great interest, read journal articles ( there were only four published articles as of then), understood its pathophysiology, manifestations, and checked on the mortality rate. I had begun rubbing sanitizers more often and had ordered N95 masks at our workplace. I had even started using the elbow to open the door instead of hands. Things seemed reasonably manageable, still fitting into what could be called a near normal, until that day in mid-March when it finally hit me that COVID had indeed arrived right in our backyard.
The next day was the Hindu new year, Ugadi, a major festival in our part of the world. Schools had been abruptly closed a week ago and exams canceled with children being promoted to next class by default. I had packed off my daughter to my parents’ house and was hoping to visit them for the big festival when on the previous night, lightning struck. Prime Minister Modi went live on national television and announced a 2-week lockdown. There were 500 positive cases detected in the country by then. As though not to arrive in singles, other shocking news began to pour in. A neighbor returning from foreign travel, living just one floor below us, tested positive for the virus. Panic spread like wildfire. Lifts and common areas were scrubbed and disinfected, and residents were screened for travel history and symptoms. Just the next day, my husband, an intensivist, got exposed to two suspected COVID cases at his hospital. A day later, our hospital, a government institution, was taken up as a nodal center for isolation, and I was put on the roster for COVID duties. It was sudden, as though a tiny pebble tossed into the lake had set off unending ripples disrupting the calm surface. I never realized then that the normalcy that was getting disrupted was never going to be restored.
Life saw a sudden change of plans. Visiting family of aged parents and a child was deferred indefinitely. Ugadi was ushered in without flowers, mango leaves or the neem branches needed for the ritualistic decoration of God. The traditional sweet dish that I tried cooking flopped unceremoniously, and blessings from elders had to be received online through video call. The worst part was hugging my child virtually, amidst cries of ‘miss you’ from her. Hearts had suddenly turned heavier, eyes mistier, and the world, a whole lot newer.
Normal outpatient clinics were closed at our workplace. Admissions came down to a bare minimum, and we saw ourselves sitting in open space with a strange new attire waiting for flu patients to drop in. I stopped wearing my customary saree to work and switched to old dresses instead. My long lustrous hair had to be tied into a small bun and stuffed in a surgical cap, my face hidden behind a suffocating mask. I removed all jewelry and accessories and wore a face shield and gloves in its place. Avoiding infection became a greater concern than treating illnesses.
Life has rushed through like a rollercoaster in these few months. Our days begin with checking on the case score in our city, state, country, and world in that order, and they end with counting the death rate in the same places in the reverse order. Interspersed between the two are innumerable hand washes, sweating under our PPE, sulking at having to check patients from a distance and grabbing information on the virus, vaccine, and guidelines from all sources possible. It is surreal. News of deaths of people from our fraternity is regular. Friends on the frontline getting infected is usual. Running out of masks, the increasing number of cases, ever-changing testing guidelines, and uncertainties over newer drugs have become unforeseen everyday concerns. While not having guests over, giving up on praying in temples, washing vegetables with detergents, and sitting two feet away from friends at the hospital canteen have become a new way of life.
Amid the anguish, I manage to cook new dishes, upload pictures of myself in PPE, dance for lockdown videos, and watch Netflix to maintain sanity. And as I do all this, I wait for a new normal, a day when COVID ceases to kill people and we live fearlessly embracing our loved ones and doing what we love the most, treating our patients.
Dr. Mridula A.M is a pediatrician working in Bangalore. She has been doing her bit during the COVID pandemic by working in the front line at her institution. She is also an avid travel blogger and a writer. She lives in Bangalore with her husband and ten-year-old daughter.