‘I cried’: A young Delhi doctor looks back at her stint in a Covid-19 ICU
- As the more “lethal” second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic struck India, Dr Saandhra Sebastian had seen too many people dying from far too close.
For a fleeting moment, Dr Saandhra Sebastian could hear herself complaining: “Why wasn’t there anyone older from the family who she could speak with. Why am I having to explain everything to someone so young.” The doctor, all of 26 years, had to break the news of the police officer’s death to his 25-year-old son. She knew how this would go; she had done it far too many times ever since she was assigned to the hospital’s intensive care unit for Covid-19 patients.
He started crying uncontrollably before she could finish.
The young man has an elder brother and a mother. But the brother was also down with coronavirus disease and admitted to another hospital. His mother was a cancer patient; confined to the bed at home. His father had been going from one hospital to another to see if she could get her chemotherapy. It was during one of these hospital visits that his father must have contracted the infection, he told her, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Dr Sebastian, a first-year resident at a government hospital in Delhi, got the answer to the question she never asked. She felt worse. Miserable.
It was just another day at work, said the doctor who last month put out a moving account of her experiences at the hospital on her Instagram handle to nudge people to mask up. The young doctor’s widely circulated note made it to newspapers and websites as well. Why did she write it? “It was just one of those days,” she responds, wryly. She was angry that people weren’t being careful enough.
As the more “lethal” second wave of the pandemic struck India, she had seen too many people dying from far too close.
Dr Sebastian, and healthcare professionals like her, always knew that they were going to deal with people dying in front of them. But she wasn’t prepared for so many.
“I was a very timid kid. In the first year of medical college, they teach you to dissect bodies. Every year, when students are taken to the dissection hall for the first time and shown how to dissect bodies, at least three people in the room faint. I always used to think I would be one of those people,” said the daughter of an official who served in the army.
But she recognises that her patients suffer a lot more than she has. “If you ask each person, the kind of stories they have behind them have so much sadness because of Covid-19,” she said. “There has always been someone in much more pain than I am”.
Besides, she doesn’t have a choice. “We are the people equipped to do this (treatment). If we don’t do it, who will,” she said, adding that her only problem is that she might catch the virus but that’s in the future. “...but when you think of what the patients and their relatives are actually undergoing... they are actually the ones experiencing the pain. I am just a bystander. I'm just a spectator. When you look at them, your problems seem much smaller.”
But it is traumatising. Dr Sebastian said healthcare professionals don’t have the luxury of time to think about it when they are working. But at the end of the day, or overnight shift in personal protection equipment (PPE) “when I come back home if something really bad happened in my shift, I cry”.
Towards the end of her 14-day Covid duty, she started crying for no reason. “Anything that I could put up with in the beginning, I couldn't by the end, I had become so frazzled by the end of it,” she added.
Understandable, because even the happiest memory has a tragedy weaved into it. Like the time when a colleague from the emergency ward came to check if there was a bed available for a 24-year-old who had come. His oxygen level was really low. She wanted to take a look but couldn’t get herself to walk up to the emergency room. The ICU didn’t have a bed for him. “There’s no point of going and leaving him after seeing him heave and gasp for breath.”
The 24-year-old got the bed all right and a second chance at life, when an elderly patient died soon after. He was unlike many other patients, she reminisced. “We receive most patients in such a bad condition. They have lost their will to live. They take out their masks, any kind of support, take out their handlers, do not let us give them medicine. But this guy, he was desperate. He cooperated, did what we told him.”
He made it out. After a week or 10 days, he got a lot better and was moved out of intensive care. “So I'm very happy. I think I had a role to play. I am very happy seeing him get better,” Dr Sebastian said, underlining that people should realise how dangerous the second Covid-19 wave is. “But they must not give up the will to recover”.