A whole year of being emergency doc, potential COVID-19 prey and responsible Mumbaikar makes me realise is that all we have is “this”
What insight did you gain from one year of the pandemic?” I asked family and friends as we dipped crisp Parle G biscuits into hot pudina chai, sitting on a swing on the outskirts of the city. We had taken off for a weekend, ironically, after a year that seemed to be full of only Sundays.
“I realised I have more than enough,” my mum said proudly.
“I understood the value of being self-sufficient,” said another, who used to have five house helps, with his wife chiming in with “but some corners of the house are just impossible to clean!”
“There was nowhere outside to go. So, the only option was to look inside, and it turns out, there were many more corners to clean there,” another one professed with perspicacity.
“COVID covered our faces but it forced us to look into each other’s eyes,” introspected another with some sagacity.
“Life is complicated and unexpected, and we should be okay with that,” concluded someone else.
Yes, my people are more interesting than I am.
The COVID-19 phenomenon has been truly global. It has stirred every corner of the world in a way no one alive has experienced before. There wasn’t a business that was not impacted, an economy that wasn’t jolted, a relationship that wasn’t tested, and an industry that wasn’t affected; the spectrum of change vacillating from woe to wonder. The veil of our inadequacies was lifted and a mirror placed in front of us, which kept cracking as each month of the lockdown progressed. For some, the mirrors eventually shattered, while others allowed for the light to come in through the cracks.
One would imagine that the entire medical fraternity would have been preoccupied with an illness of this magnitude, but that wasn’t the case. While physicians were at the forefront to begin with, surgeons stepped in when we began to experience macabre complications of the virus that could be solved only by the knife. Endlessly tired, people just wanted to overcome the problem and make it go away. But the truth, taught by each wave of COVID-19, is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and then fall apart. They come together again and fall apart again. And in the midst of this strangeness, we had to make room for all our emotions: grief, sorrow, misery, relief, and joy.
The staff at the Wockhardt Hospital which I am associated with, faced a bit of a predicament in the nascent stages. In a series of unfortunate events, close to hundred of them were infected. We had to transport existing patients to other facilities, quarantine and treat our own personnel, shut the building down, and refurbish and open it up to treat only COVID-19 patients. Most of the staff pugnaciously returned to work, donating their resplendent and rich plasma for patients for whom it was valued more than its weight in gold. Having treated over 3,000 cases, our mortality rate for COVID-19 was nearly half when compared to the average of other hospitals in South Mumbai. Stories of courage and resilience continue to satiate our corridors; there is seldom a day we go hungry.
While this malady has set into motion a train of misfortune, the most tragic derailment—especially for doctors—is that it has taken away the comfort of touch. The joy a patient experiences when you bend forward and hold their hand while they lay in bed on the day after surgery, or when you help them up and make them walk for the first time since, can never be equalled by simulating the sequence on a flat screen, even if you do light it up with a panoply of emojis. A pat on the back, an arm around the shoulder, a simple hug is what COVID-19 has taken away from us. Now, when we meet friends, even those we know well, we hesitate before greeting them: should we shake hands, bump fists, or nudge elbows? There is an awkwardness in the way we greet—an absurd but amusing oddity.
When patients see you in the clinic, they expect you to touch their lumps and bumps, press where it hurts, straighten out what’s bent. They want you to shine a torch in their eyes and have you look inside their mouths and say “Aaah!” even if it’s a backache they’ve come to see you for. Those who need surgery give you permission to examine them when they are awake, to discern if you will do justice to them when they will be asleep. It’s unfair to those who were operated during the lockdown; we recognise them only from the scars we’ve left behind.
The stethoscope was invented in 1816 by a French physician who was too embarrassed to put his ear to a female patient’s chest to listen to her heart and lungs (as was the norm at the time), opting, instead, to roll 24 sheets of paper into a cone to create some distance between them. To say that a few doctors might not be too happy with that invention is simply a matter of jest. But touch not only examines but also heals. Even prior to the pandemic, some of us were guilty of treating images and not patients, not examining patients in depth, not talking enough to the relatives. The already-existing chasm between doctor and patient was cleaved further by COVID-19. We hope that with time, we will not only be able to touch again but also feel more deeply. Until then, there shall be a sense of impending ‘Zoom’.
Everyone’s lives now have an element of Zoom to them. Doctors have transitioned to seeing patients online, and it works better in some specialties than others. I’m guessing gynaecologists and urologists must be having a really hard time; I’m blessed to deal with the brain and spine—parts of the body that are easily dealt with online and offline. With the vaccine being rolled out, the fear of walking into a hospital is being alleviated, and with time and experience, we have mastered for our patients to feel safe and assured. Everyone who can must get vaccinated for us to move on.
The one question that still plagues me is this: On a universal scale, did COVID-19 do more good or bad? The ones who lost loved ones will undoubtedly and unequivocally state, ‘bad’. The ones who spent this past year learning more about themselves and what they really needed from life might opt for ‘good’. But there are also those who don’t know yet because they continue to battle—the virus, their anxiety, their fears for the future—and who knows what the future might bring? And then, we have those who acknowledge perhaps the most important truth of all: There is no such thing as good or bad, there is only what is.
Maybe we’ll know the answer another year from now, maybe it’ll take us a decade, or maybe we won’t know at all. Until then, in the words of Ram Dass, be here now.