The Biggest Test

Oath may seem like a tiny word, but it contains a universe of expectations. To live up to the vows one swears allegiance to is a big challenge. Our leaders, unfortunately, have failed to serve and protect the people of India during the pandemic.

I, however, hope I have remained honest to the Hippocratic oath I had taken in August 2017. In the past few months, I have faced the biggest test as a doctor. April-May will be engraved in my memories for the rest of my life. I treated patients, tested positive for COVID-19 and emerged from the disease a stronger person. Within three days of testing negative, I was back in the COVID-19 ward at Calcutta’s Peerless Hospital.

It’s been a fortnight since I returned. As patients with other diseases too come to the hospital, the COVID-19 section has been completely isolated. It can be mentally damning to stay so secluded. But that’s the nature of our work. As they say, it’s the new normal.

March Of The Virus

From March onwards, we started getting patients—both symptomatic and asymptomatic. There was a paucity of testing kits. One day, we admitted an 86-year-old Bengali lady. She suffered from Parkinson’s and was weak and feverish—practically bed-ridden. We didn’t test her for COVID-19 though. Old people need a lot of attention and I, along with some nurses, looked after her fondly. Unfortunately, we could not save her. Soon, I too started showing symptoms, as did a couple of nurses and other staff attending to the lady.

As far as testing is concerned, things have gotten better compared to the initial days of the pandemic. Earlier, we relied on Chinese kits that sometimes gave erroneous results. Now we have two types of kits—GeneXpert and RT-PCR. The former is cheaper (Rs 1,500 per test) and is being used more often as cases increase. It gives results in five to six hours. RT-PCR is more expensive (Rs 4,500 per test) and can take up to 10 hours to provide accurate results. Both tests are equally good.

Positive to Negative

I had weakness, chills at night and bouts of high fever—symptoms of COVID-19. This escalated to breathlessness, chest pain and anosmia (loss of smell). I tested positive on April 25. The hospital gave me a separate room and the staff took good care of me. Since no cure has been discovered, there is not much one can do for a COVID-19 patient. Apart from the usual checks, I was on medicines as per the WHO protocol—Vitamin C, antibiotics, hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol. Since I had lost my sense of smell, I couldn’t taste food either. It was frustrating at times, but since I was a house physician, I could at least talk to the nurses. And thank god for my smartphone!

I was still positive after two weeks, but I knew I would get well. Age was on my side, so it was only a matter of time.. When I did not show any fresh symptoms for more than a week and my chest X-ray showed signs of improvement, I knew I was recovering. Finally, when I did not get a fever for three consecutive days and my vitals were stable, I was allowed to go home, but only on the condition that I would be quarantined for a week. It was relaxing as I was back in an intimate space and my parents and sister were around. On May 26, my result was negative.

Flatten The Fear Curve

When I joined the hospital after four weeks of treatment and quarantine, I was not forced to join the COVID-19 ward—I made a conscious decision to work there. As a doctor, it’s my commitment to serve humanity to the best of my ability, without discriminating among patients. While people do not stimgatise COVID-19 like they do tuberculosis, leprosy or sexually transmitted infections, there is still tremendous fear of the disease. However, to treat a person with coronavirus as if they were untouchable is unacceptable. Indeed, the curve is anything but flattening in India, but unless medical personnel eschew fear, we will not be able to stop the spread of the disease. That motivated me to return to the isolation ward and work for people battling the virus.

However, to see people risking their lives being treated like outcastes was shameful. Fortunately, the attacks on health workers and nurses attached to COVID-19 wards have stopped. Cases are rising though—we are getting an average of five patients every day, quite a high number. Unlike before, we are unable to trace the source of the infection. This shows that lockdown rules have been thrown to the wind. With things unlikely to get better soon, we have to step up as a team. Right now, our commitment, willingness and courage matter as much as our MBBS degrees.

(As told to Soumitra Bose)

Rijuta De is a junior doctor at Peerless Hospital and B.K. Roy Research Centre

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