Treating COVID-19 patients, providing them psycho-social support to help keep them calm, and dealing with the constant fear of contracting the infection are some of the many battles that the country’s healthcare workers are fighting daily since the outbreak of the pandemic.
On National Doctor’s Day, some of the women healthcare workers working at dedicated COVID-19 facilities across the country shared their experiences of emerging as the frontline force in fighting the virus that has claimed over 16,000 lives and infected 5.6 lakh people across the country.
For Nimrat Kaur, a doctor who pursued the Master of Public Health programme from Johns Hopkins University in the US, working at a dedicated COVID-19 facility in Patna has been challenging not only mentally but also physically.
“This pandemic is not dedicated to one class or one group of people; it is for everybody so there is a constant fear among doctors too because we are in the middle of (coronavirus) positive patients and they are panicky. We assure them that their testing positive does not mean the end of the world,” the 32-year-old told PTI over phone.
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Kaur, who has been a part of different projects of Doctors Without Borders in coordinating emergency response across Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam, said she treats about 25 COVID patients daily in her shifts which are 12-hour long.
“I have a very weird biological clock which I am literally setting and resetting every few days. We have a 12-hour shift so you can’t stick to one personal routine,” she said.
“When I get up I do a little stretching because standing in PPEs (personal protective equipment) for 12 hours at a stretch is really exhausting. Our breaks are not really scheduled or aligned with our lunch breaks as we cannot come out at leisure,” she added.
Kaur last met her family five months ago and it is not very often that she is able to talk to them because of her erratic work schedule.
“It has been five months since I have not seen my family and I am not even able to talk to them due to my erratic shift timings,” she said.
“…It feels like if you talk to them then you are actually scaring them because even if I cough during my conversation, they really get scared…their first question is ‘are you feeling okay’,” she added.
Agreed Pooja Iyer, a psychologist working at a COVID facility, who said that the biggest challenge for her is to counsel COVID patients while covered in PPEs as there is no eye contact.
“The most important thing during the counselling is eye contact and that is missing due to the PPE. We use gestures, head nods and speak loudly so that the patients could hear us, she said.
We cannot touch the patients even when they are crying so it is difficult. We put our arms around our chest to show we are concerned,” Iyer said.
She stressed on the need to fight the stigma associated with the disease.
“There is a lot of stigma (attached with the disease)… it is important to deal with stigma associated with COVID and that has to happen at national and familial level,” the 31-year-old said.
Meanwhile, 26-year-old nurse Anima Ekka said she contemplated for many days before deciding to get deployed at a COVID facility as she wanted to serve others.
“I discussed with my family for several days but I had seen how my own community was struggling because of the disease and I knew that if I wanted communities like mine to be helped, I had to go serve,” she said.
Ekka, who was associated with a malnutrition project in Chakradharpur in Jharkhand, said it is hard to work in PPEs all day long while trying to ensure that we always remain alert and empathetic.
“We take a short rest in between because you are always on rounds checking vitals of patients and it is just very taxing physically,” she added.
Nisha Mohan, a doctor and Project Medical Referent of the Doctors Without Borders COVID-19 treatment centre, said wearing PPEs for long hours and work exertion is causing many healthcare workers body aches and headaches.
“Another issue faced by the medical staff is the personal struggle for them to stay safe and the fact that they are away from their families,” she said.
“One of the other things is that the staff is quite scared about the virus… they are concerned about the risk they are facing,” she added.