Life of a doctor in times of pandemic

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In the month of Ramzan, Zainab Nabi visited home just once.

As the fasting month was nearing an end and the Eid-ul-Fitr was expected either on Thursday or Friday, she was hoping it would be on the latter-day.

The announcement of the new crescent was made close to midnight and Eid-ul-Fitr was scheduled on Thursday, and 30-year-old Zainab, a surgeon at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital spent the day of festivity attending to the duty in the emergency ward.

It was not the first time that she wasn’t able to be with her family on a festive occasion. Last year too when COVID19’s first wave was raging in Kashmir, Zainab had missed Eid at home as she had patients scheduled for surgeries.

When Zainab’s duty hours ended, it was already the second day of Eid-ul-Fitr. “It did not feel like Eid,” she said; there was nothing exciting for the breakfast.

Zainab, like thousands of doctors and paramedics, has been living on an edge since the pandemic outbreak last year which has pushed the healthcare infrastructures to the brink of collapse.

Kashmir, where major healthcare facilities are concentrated in Srinagar city, was hit by COVID-19 infection in March last year that had prompted a quick lockdown which helped in its containment.

The second wave came in March this year and was devastatingly infectious as the administration was initially reluctant to impose a lockdown. As the cases surged, the healthcare facilities faced a crisis and doctors were exhausted by long and tense work hours.

In Jammu and Kashmir, more than 50000 people are active-positive and deaths have surged to more than fifty on a daily basis.

The pandemic has also taken a toll on doctors as at least three doctors died in the past week and more than a hundred doctors at Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar have tested positive during the second wave.

Helplessness and deaths everywhere

The last few months, since the second wave of infections broke in the Kashmir region, have been agonising for Zainab. “To see young patients gasping for oxygen is a traumatising experience,” she said. “The worst thing for a doctor is to see their patient dying and the doctor not being able to help. …That feeling of helplessness is traumatic,” she said.

She explained that whenever a patient visits a doctor, they know what they have to work on “but in these circumstances, it is difficult to comprehend the situation”. “The feeling that death is roaming around a patient’s head is terrible. I can’t explain it to you,” she said.

The fast-spreading pandemic has also brought the pain of loss to the doctors as they see their relatives or their colleagues struggling for treatment.

Zainab’s moment came earlier this month when she saw a colleague crying for his dying sister who was seven months pregnant and had conceived for the first time in her 17 years of marriage. “When I saw him, I was shocked as I have always looked up to him as a strong and confident man,” she said.

To live with constant deaths and the vulnerability of people, Zainab now has nightmares as images of dying patients flash in front of her eyes every time she goes to sleep. “It has become difficult for me to sleep ever since,” she said.

An Unhappy Eid

When Zainab’s duty hours finished on the morning of the second day of Eid-ul-Fitr, she left the hospital for her home in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district. The region was under a strict lockdown and he was stopped at several checkpoints.

The first at Batamaloo where she was let go as she showed her ID.

Zainab said when she reached the highway town of Pattan, midway on her journey from Srinagar to Baramulla, she was again stopped. A police constable asked her where she was going. “I told her that I am a doctor and I am going home.”

“The constable abused me and told her she was uselessly roaming around. … I couldn’t believe they could behave like this with a doctor,” she said.

Zainab said she showed them her identity card to the constable but he kept saying ‘derogatory things”. Another policeman came and intervened. “They thought I would create a problem so another constable came and told me to let it go and forget about it.”

“I was shocked and disheartened,” she said. “I thought to myself, what am I doing? We look after even the patients who don’t have any attendant and this is what we get in turn.”

The Kashmir Walla spoke to the Medical Superintendent posted in one of the COVID19 designated hospitals who said that the current situation has been equally difficult for the doctors as much as it has been for the public.

“You don’t only have to treat your patients but you also have to prevent yourself from getting affected which is a challenging task,” he said, requesting not to be named.

The doctor said he was able to visit his family in January this year for two days. Next, he went on Eid for two more days. He said that the situation being grim, he didn’t want to put his family at risk.

He further said that there are counselling sessions to keep the doctors motivated, otherwise, he said, “ it takes a toll on their mental health.”

He said that for a young lot of doctors, the situation has been a bit more difficult. “They see patients dying in front of their eyes and a fear develops in their hearts,” he said, but “we can’t sit at home, we have to keep working. We are meant for this.”

When Zainab reached home after a harrowing stopover at the Pattan checkpoint, she described the incident on Twitter. “Is this how you treat those who put their lives at risk for you? Do we deserve this,” she wrote.

Zainab said she wanted people to know the reality which is why she narrated the incident on social media. “It is a sin to bear harassment without saying something,” she said.

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