"I am scared for my own life"
10 doctors share their stories of battling the second wave of COVID-19
In the second week of my recovery from COVID-19, I was still downing litres of Glucon-D, taping my eyelids to stay open during the day, obsessively checking oxygen saturation levels and talking to COVID doctors for hours.
The last one was for this story.
It was an out-of-body experience, listening to them recount gut-wrenching details, painting a picture of a quasi-warfront.
As of May 6, 2021, the national registry of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) states that 862 doctors have died of COVID-19, of which 126 succumbed this year. In 2020, the 15th Finance Commission reported that every allopathic doctor in India caters to at least 1,511 people. While there’s one nurse for every 670 patients.
Some of the doctors we spoke to talked about the Hamlet-esque dilemma of who to save and who to let go, others relived the excruciating pains and episodes of UTIs that being in PPE suits all day can bring. A few have miraculously found ways to detach, albeit for a few hours in a day.
Ten doctors from across the country, working in government hospitals and private institutions, open up about what the second wave of COVID-19 really feels like.
Each agreed to spare 10-15 minutes to talk to us between packed shifts. The implications of the pandemic on their mental health are beyond summation and it’s clear that these healthcare professionals are fighting the battle with an almost empty ammunition dump.
But all of them are returning to their shifts each morning with the hope of sending smiling patients back to their families. The only hope they’re latching on to right now.
We bring you their stories to honour their selfless dedication and sacrifice, not just by reading, but by acting. The simple task of staying indoors, and wearing a mask and sanitising your hands if you must go out, can ease the load on these frontline heroes. Being vigilant in our communities and helping each other to avoid having to land up in hospitals, where the resources are exhausted. Following the proper medical advice and ignoring the University of Whatsapp.
It’s the least we can do for those who are risking their lives to save ours.
10 COVID doctors share how they are facing the second wave of the virus
“Three patients dying at the same time, and I had to choose whom to save”
“In PPE suits, we are all just Teletubbies bouncing off walls from one ward to another trying to save lives. For eight hours, we are in those suits. We seal them to our bodies using leucoplast. After wearing the masks, we seal them to our faces too.
We don’t drink water for hours. When we finally pee after 12 hours, it hurts, and many of us are getting UTIs. For female doctors, period time is excruciating.
On some shifts, there’s one doctor looking after 75 patients. We don’t really work for promotions; it’s the joy of sending your patients back home. But when you see them battling for their lives and you can’t do anything due to lack of resources, there’s a feeling of failure.
On one shift, I had three patients dying at the same time and I was the only on-call doctor. I had to choose whom to save. One was a 32-year-old woman with a six-year-old son. The other two were in their 70s. You don’t have time to think or react. But I went back home and felt horrible.
On top of this, influential people want us to make special provisions for them. There’s a huge difference between hospitality and hospitals.
I got COVID twice. During one of those days, I got up from bed and went to the other room. It was hardly 10 steps, and I was gasping. My oxygen level had fallen down to 75. I used my inhaler and after a couple of hours, I was better. That day, for a fleeting moment, I thought I was going to die.
I still have body pain and can’t sit straight. It takes me time to stand up and my respiratory capacity has gone down. We need to take this virus seriously and not just go wandering about without a care.” – Dr Deesha Dutta, senior resident, ophthalmology, Calcutta Medical College, Kolkata
“I am scared for my own life”
“In March 2020, I worked on an Italian who succumbed to the virus; it was one of the first COVID deaths in the country. I had no idea what was going to happen just a year later.
In March 2021, all hell broke loose with the new strain.
I feel helpless. If anybody in my family is critical, I don’t have resources to get specialised drugs, even though I work in the hospital. In the COVID ward, I am less than two feet away from patients, in suffocating PPE, scared for my own life.
Over the years, I’ve dealt with patients suffering from lung cancer, TB and other respiratory disorders. I am accustomed to delivering bad news. With these illnesses, relatives are prepared. But this virus can kill in a matter of hours, and that’s hard to digest.
The number of doctors infected this time is extreme compared to the last wave. In my department, four doctors are positive. The healthcare system is running on reserves, and things can get worse.
No one thought at the end of February that within just next seven days, there might be a chance of a nationwide lockdown. But if not now, then when?” – Dr Sushant Sharma, senior resident doctor, pulmonary medicine, Sawai Maan Singh Medical College, Jaipur
“We are on the verge of a breakdown”
“My granddad was admitted with COVID in the hospital I work at, but I lost him earlier this week.
Currently, we have five days of COVID ICU duty followed by two-three days of isolation to see if we develop any symptoms. The staff are on the verge of a breakdown. We see patients crashing right in front of us, one moment, we are talking to them, the next, they are gone.
Medically speaking, in the earlier months, parts of Europe had their second and third waves. We did anticipate that things will turn bad, and perhaps we could have been better prepared.
But there’s hope right now, in Mumbai at least. The patient load in ICU hasn’t decreased, but the numbers have fallen in the COVID wards. Hope that reflects in the ICUs soon.” – Dr Mustafa Khan, junior intensivist, Lilavati Hospital And Research Centre, Mumbai
“Nobody in our generation has been trained to manage such a pandemic”
“Last time, the fear was too high. This year, people aren’t scared. Perhaps that’s why the number is skyrocketing. My wife is also a doctor, and we are both serving in COVID wards.
In an eight-hour shift, I see around five-six deaths. The family is constantly in touch with the patients, and suddenly, in a matter of two hours, the condition deteriorates and we lose them. Then their relatives question, “We were just talking two hours ago. What happened?”
But two hours is a very long time with COVID-19.
Nobody in our generation has been trained to manage such a pandemic. So we are constantly adapting. I have to take the lead in delivering bad news to families, and at this point, we are desensitised to an extent. It’s strange and heartless, but when we see such deaths, often some of us think aaj documentation bahut hoga.” – Dr Imran Jalal*, resident orthopaedic surgeon, Government Medical College, Pune
“It won’t be surprising if a lot of resident doctors develop PTSD”
“We are physically stretched beyond limits. In PPE suits, there’s hardly any ventilation. We sweat into our pants till our underwear is soaked through.
We can use the washroom during the shift, but removing the PPE means a high risk of spreading the virus. So we avoid drinking water.
In the COVID ICU, we monitor 35-45 critical patients on a daily basis. Once you stop seeing them as a bed number and view them as humans, once you learn that they have a grandson to go back to or a daughter at home, it gives you the impetus to push harder and work more.
It won’t be surprising if a lot of doctors develop PTSD after working this way for months at a stretch. I live in the hostel with my roommate, and we bring work back to the rooms.
I like to order good food every night to take my mind off things.
The only positive feeling we get these days is when we discharge patients after their recovery.” – Dr Sanchari Pal, MD, obstetrics and gynaecology, KEM Hospital and GS Medical College, Mumbai
“We aren’t done with the virus, far from it”
“I work in the OPD. We still get patients, and have to carry on with their treatment, regardless of what’s happening in the adjacent COVID ward. We have screens between ourselves and patients. We are wearing two masks, face shields, gloves, head caps.
Last month, when I started getting calls asking for help to get admitted, to get drugs and oxygen, I felt like a helpline. But I didn’t have all those resources, and it’s a helpless feeling. There’s no end to our days anymore. We treat patients in the hospital. We return home and attend calls.
We really don’t know what to do at our level right now, yet at the same time, there’s a strange agency: doctors decide who gets oxygen.
And it’s scary to see some oddballs who threaten doctors, get violent and damage hospital properties. It’s absolutely unfair to have zero protection. Everyone is overworked. Deaths are inevitable with the limited resources at hand. We aren’t done with the virus, far from it, all of us still need to work as a unit, wear your mask at all times, and take safety precautions.” – Dr Ruby Taparia, internal medicine, NIMS, Hyderabad
“I have developed long-term debilitating symptoms as a result of my COVID infection”
“Since October 2020, I have been treating patients at my private practice and doing home visits for patients including COVID-positive patients. It is difficult to treat patients when I know that our infrastructure is collapsing. I have been fighting depressive episodes due to the sheer number of patients I see, and who call me asking for help and resources which I cannot provide.
It is also a major financial constraint to buy PPE for house calls.
I have seen many colleagues get sick, and three weeks ago, I contracted COVID myself, most likely from patient. I have developed long-term debilitating symptoms as a result.
Medical professionals are feeling helpless. With limited resources, we are forced into difficult decisions everyday, and cannot treat patients as effectively as we want to.
I talk to colleagues on group chats where we share our stories and feelings. It helps to know that I’m not alone.” – Dr Jonathan Gouveia, consultant physician, Goa
“We don’t even get to quarantine after our duties because manpower is very limited”
“Working in a COVID-19 ward is mentally taxing. Young patients gasp for breath and eventually lose their life, despite best possible care. Many of my colleagues contracted it, including myself. Some were severe, and were admitted in ICU. One of our ward boys (young, healthy, without any co-morbidities) passed away a few days ago.
Doctors are in the ward and ICU 24/7, but COVID is so unpredictable, that we lose the patient before we can even do anything.
It’s unfortunate that we cannot help all the patients who are coming to our hospital because beds are limited. And more than 90% of patients who come to our hospital need admission. Residents are getting burnt out. We don’t even get to quarantine after our duties because manpower is very limited.
After returning home, I address phone calls from relatives, friends and acquaintances who have been affected by the virus. So, beyond wards and ICU, it’s still work.” – Dr Manas Das, resident, internal medicine, Lady Hardinge Medical College and Associated Hospitals, New Delhi
“We have been seeing 250 patients per day”
“I work at a primary health centre, it’s a rural setup, and every day we do COVID testing and look after patients with mild infection. For the last week, we have been seeing 250 patients per day. At this point, the medical team is reduced to half. Out of the four doctors, two of them are positive, so right now, it’s just the two of us, and we are overworked beyond words.
It’s absolute chaos.
We are not equipped to handle the numbers. And in front of our eyes, we see patients collapsing, getting paralytic attacks. The only thing I am fortunate enough to not see is death in front of me, on my watch.
My other colleagues working in the hospitals are dealing with emergencies on a daily basis. I can’t imagine what that feels like.
I am afraid of contracting it myself. I live with my family in an apartment, and I know if I get infected, there’s not enough space to isolate. I am hoping to find an accommodation for myself. But right now, it just scares me, and I desperately want people to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but that’s my only prayer.” – Dr Ella-Marie Filinto-Sequeira, Primary Health Centre, Porvorim, Goa
“The COVID-19 cloud is like an omnipresent imaginary sword pointed at us”
“Currently, I am COVID positive, but things are under control. Honestly, psychiatrists are pretty useless in the critical care set-up, so we don’t have as many ICU shifts as others. But some of our patients also turn positive and show symptoms.
Whether we work in the COVID ward or not, as long as you’re healthcare staff on the floor, your life is affected. You see your regular patients with suspicion. You ask for symptoms before starting the general treatment. The COVID cloud is like an omnipresent imaginary sword pointed at us.
Even when I take all the precautions, if someone coughs, the panic button in my head gets triggered. In this wave, staff is falling sick, patients are coming in with worse symptoms, things are dire.
When it started last year, we all expected it to be a six-eight month thing. Today, the healthcare staff has been working without any break for close to a year, everybody is nearing breakdown. Doctors are losing patients as well as members of their own families, it’s ugly.
And even if we contemplate an end to this, we cannot. I can’t tell when everybody will get immunised. I don’t have any answers. The worst part is most family members of the patients are trying to kill the messenger: nurse or doctor. People need to realise that COVID doctors right now are nothing but a defunct pipeline, without enough resources.
I try to get at least a good night’s sleep and avoid psychoactive substance, especially alcohol because it interferes with memory and emotion processing. We can’t drown our sorrows in alcohol right now. We try to talk to people who are in a better space mentally who can help you rationalise, and give you some hope and positivity.” – Dr Ojasvi Batra, neuropsychiatrist, Sukhman Hospital, Mohali
*Name changed upon request