Before testing positive for Coronavirus (COVID-19), the 65-year-old – Kashmir’s patient number two – had been to everywhere; Srinagar-Delhi-Deoband (Uttar Pradesh)-Samba (Jammu)-Srinagar-Sopore-Hyderpora (Srinagar). An associate of Tablighi Jamaat, his voyage ended at Government Medical College (GMC), Srinagar on last Sunday – when a junior resident doctor referred him to Chest and Disease Hospital, a designated COVID-19 clinic. He was tested positive there later.
The doctor had to be put under quarantine. And that’s how it has been for the doctors on duty in emergency or Out Patient Department (OPD), says Dr. Mohsin Bin Mushtaq.
“Right now, the patient you just saw in OPD could be a COVID-positive,” says Dr. Mushtaq, the president of Resident Doctor’s Association (RDA), GMC. “Most of the times we are the first contact of these patients; it puts us at high risk. And we have signed up for it – but did our families?”
In Jammu and Kashmir, at least eighteen people have been tested positive for the virus and one of them has died.
On 19 March, a day after Kashmir detected its Patient One, Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital closed down its OPD. The GMC issued a list of helpline numbers for on-call consultation with specific doctors. So did, independently, Doctors’ Association of Kashmir. However, the list couldn’t make it to everyone and patients are still coming into the emergency ward at the hospital, though Dr. Mushtaq says, very less in number.
“No one prepares you for a pandemic”
The lives of these doctors, who essentially are stationed at the OPD or emergency departments of the hospitals, have completely changed since the regional outbreak. Not only in terms of precautions and anxiety within the hospital premises but also at home.
The days are over when Dr. Mushtaq would go home, greet his parents and sit down over a cup of tea. Now, he even opens the gate at his home with an elbow; washes his hands thoroughly outside in the lawn; doesn’t meet anyone and rushes to his room upstairs; take bath and shed the clothes in a different basket (and washes them separately on his own); and spends the rest of the night in self-isolation.
“No one prepares you for a pandemic,” says Dr. Mushtaq, “neither mentally nor medically. There are always chances of catching the infection; we sit and work in the same contaminated area daily.” He has expertise in Internal Medicine and has been taking all possible precautions in the casualty ward and elsewhere – but a minor error will put hundreds at risk, including his family.
And he isn’t alone with that fear. Dr. Shazia Mushtaq, who is essentially stationed at the microbiology lab at GMC, collects throat swab samples from suspected COVID-19 patients. Explaining technical aspects behind the test, she adds that whenever she takes a sample – she is reminded of her diabetic parents at her home.
“Everyone is anxious; I’m for myself and family and the patients are for their families,” she says. “They keep asking how long does the test result take?”
To keep their personal lives at the halt for now, RDA and associated doctors also requested authorities for accommodation in hostels as precautionary measures.
As per National Health Profile 2019, there are a total of 15,038 doctors registered with either Indian Medical Council or State Medical Council in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Dr. Mohsin is reminded of a night before at the hospital: “I was wearing PPE for almost many hours straight; there came a time when I couldn’t see through the transparent shield properly. When a colleague brought me a cup of coffee, I just lowered my mask and sipped it from his hands.”
“It’s a war”
Sitting closely in a small group, Dr. Sartaj Bhat, 27, is the youngest. He says that the pandemic is the biggest event in his life – “it doesn’t get bigger than this.” Dr. Mohsin agrees too: “Any a practising doctor, no matter how old, has not seen a pandemic. We are witnessing it.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Mohsin’s phone rang; UK’s Prince Charles from the royal family was tested positive. One of his colleagues says, “See, the virus doesn’t discriminate – and we are on the frontlines, anyways.” Everyone shared a brief laugh.
At the time, when the world’s best healthcare systems are kneeling down – including Italy, which has the highest deaths due to COVID-19, and the US, which has the highest number of positive cases – Dr. Bhat feels lucky to be surviving. “They [world leaders] are kneeling down and here we are – doctors – fighting it.”
But Dr. Mohsin is afraid that what we might be seeing is an iceberg-phenomenon. “No one can say anything about its intensity – not us, not the government,” he says. Soon, his phone rang again; four more tested positive in north Kashmir.
“Now, I’m worried too,” says Dr. Bhat. “It’s here at our doorstep.”
But they all have their drive. For Dr. Mohsin, the luckiness in seeing a pandemic is about saving a life; “If we help one patient recover, then we are lucky to see the pandemic.” Dr. Shazia too deals with her continuous stress by the idea of helping patients.
The group unanimously agrees when Dr. Mohsin says that the OPD is currently like a battlefield; “you know it’s a war and you know that bullets will be coming towards you – but you fight.”
However, initially, they had to fight without the bulletproof vests. In a letter dated 20 March, RDA wrote to Dr. Saima Rashid, the principal of GMC, about the lack of proper safety equipment. By the next day, they were supplied with it.
Now, they say, it is the most important stage to #BreakTheChain, a trend on social media capturing the idea of self-isolation. They reiterate, what has become the underline of their lives: “We are risking our lives to save yours. We are here, so you stay home.”
Yashraj Sharma is an assistant editor at The Kashmir Walla